Wanted: 60,000 drivers. What the shortages at US trucking companies means to you

Zoe Nicholson The Greenville News Published 12:12 PM EDT Aug 24, 2019 Trucking companies nationwide are about 60,000 drivers short, a gap that is expected to grow in the coming years and could threaten U.S. supply chains.

That’s the conclusion from the American Trucking Association, a national trade association for the trucking industry, where Chief Economist Bob Costello warns driver shortages could reach six-figures by 2024. “The increase in the driver shortage should be a warning to carriers, shippers and policymakers because if conditions don’t change substantively, our industry could be short just over 100,000 drivers in five years and 160,000 drivers in 2028,” Costello said in July.

And, the entire supply chain could soon be affected, if it hasn’t already, University of South Carolina management science professor Mark Ferguson said.  “I think it will lead to a combination of higher prices and more out of stock items, especially for perishable items like food and produce.”

Ferguson, who researches supply chain management and logistics, said that local businesses will likely feel the affects of the shortage more severely, since transport companies will probably service their larger, more lucrative accounts first.  Butch Knight, a truck driver, said people don’t fully understand the impact trucking has on their everyday lives. “That keyboard you’re typing on, it came on a truck. That shirt you’re wearing, it came on a truck.”

‘A CDL is gold’

“We’re turning businesses away because we’re afraid we can’t be what we need to be to our customers,” Swafford Trucking transportation manager Vernon Rutland said.

He added that Swafford, a warehouse and transport company, turns away 2-3 jobs a month because they can’t find drivers.  A year ago, Swafford would pay entry-level drivers between £17 and £18 an hour for local hauls. Now, they’re paying £20 an hour. “We have to raise our rates to retain drivers.”

Service Transport, Inc. has a 5-year minimum when hiring drivers. Senior manager Steven Keller said that even in the face of a shortage, “we just can’t afford to allow someone who doesn’t have some history to move material.” Knight, who’s been a driver for 22 years, believes the shortage stems from the regulations on in-vehicle electronic logging devices, which mandates that drivers can only drive their rigs for up to 11 hours before having to take a 10-hour break. 

“Drivers don’t want to be regulated. There’s no other job where you can get a fine for being a hard-working person,” Knight said. A fine for violating the ELD regulations is typically £1,000, Rutland said.

Keller said the local market is competitive, which has led to the increase in wages for drivers.  “We get honest wages, but it could be better for a driver because of all the stress we go through,” Knight said. 

What’s causing the shortage?

Todd said two factors are contributing to the shortage: retirement rates and the stigma associated with truck drivers. “Used to, for every 4 that retired you have 3 drivers coming on,” Rutland said. “Now, for every 4 drivers that retire, you may have half a driver coming on.”

Todd has been in the trucking business for 40 years, and said he’s been seeing the retirement wave coming for years, “but now it’s upon us.” Knight said he sees young people coming into the trade, but without adequate training. “I’ve seen a truck driver go through a drive-thru. Do you think a truck can fit through a drive-thru?

No.” “They give up and go home,” Knight said. ” And then go on to other jobs.” And not enough drivers are coming into the industry to counteract the retirees, Rutland said. “For so long there was a push for higher education.

Trade-skill labor kind of took a backseat.” Rutland said truck drivers get a bad name for having a “nasty, dirty job,” but he says the £100,000 salaries some of his veteran drivers earn indicates “a good, respectable career.” Ferguson, a business foundation fellow at USC’s Darla Moore School of Business, said he thinks young people are hesitant to enter a profession where self-driving technology may soon be operating an 18-wheeler on the highway. 

“The technology is already out there and being tested on the roads.”

‘This is a societal problem’

At the end of June 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there were 7.4 million job openings.  “Since the economy got back on its feet, every sector of the economy is facing a qualified worker shortage,” said SC Trucking Association President Rick Todd. “It’s a societal problem.” To combat the shortage, Todd said his association heavily recruits in highs schools. 

“We want to show these kids these are good, all-American jobs.”

But, with truck drivers making more, freight prices are going up.

“Ultimately, the consumer is going to be the one to pay for it,” Rutland said. 

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