Memphis truck driver shortage grows as COVID-19 pandemic continues

The truck driving industry has always seen fluctuation in drivers, but COVID-19 has created an unexpected shortage that will shift the industry’s landscape.

Brad Ball  |  Guest Columnist

The shortage of drivers has always fluctuated with the economy but has been in existence for approximately ten years. Over the next ten years, the shortage was expected to grow to over 150,000 with an increasing shortfall in replacing retiring drivers combined with industry growth.   The COVID-19 pandemic has made the shortage worse for the trucking companies resulting in more options than ever for new drivers in the industry. 

With the onset of the pandemic, we saw a temporary reduction in demand which was quickly reversed with stimulus checks and a dramatic change in the buying habits of Americans.  Retail in-person shopping declined, e-commerce surged, and spending shifted from travel and service industries to goods – all of which move by truck.   Hear more Tennessee Voices: Get the weekly opinion newsletter for insightful and thought provoking columns.

COVID-19 has impacted trucking industry’s growth

Demand for drivers surged in the 2nd and 3rd quarter of 2020, but truck driving schools nationwide were only able to enroll a fraction of their prior volumes, primarily due to social distancing in classrooms.  Some schools that were forced to close by the states were never able to financially recover.  As a result, the deficit has grown. 

The upside of this is that the trucking career is increasingly being considered one defined by great job security and diversity.   The career has always been considered somewhat recession proof, but now it’s proving to be pandemic proof as well.   The average age of the over-the-road driver population is approaching 50 years old.  As they retire, they are being replaced by a young, more diverse population.

The attraction, in part, being that there is no pay gap tied to race or sex. Professional truck drivers are paid based on the number of miles driven.  Additionally, the investment in tuition and training time is low compared to other education paths and occupational opportunities.  Students can complete training in a matter of weeks and immediately start a new career with an average annual starting pay of about £50,000.  There are few comparable opportunities available where the road to success is so easily attainable for those that are unemployed or underemployed. 

Before enrolling, prospective students are screened for employability and once enrolled must pass a DOT Physical and drug screen.  From there, enrollees can apply and receive pre-hires from trucking companies even before the first day of school. Students start in the classroom then move out to a closed course where they learn the basics of safely operating the truck and eventually move on to road training. Students start orientation with their new employer just days after graduation where they continue paid training until they are assigned a truck.  

Focusing on the future

Trucking companies are making recent changes to attract more drivers. From improvements in home time, equipment, benefits and pay, the truck driving career is becoming more attractive.

Most carriers offer a full array of benefits such as medical and dental insurance, life insurance 401K retirement plans, ride along policies (This is where you can bring a family member, friend, or pet) and paid holidays.  We are seeing regular pay increases from many of the major carriers.   Improvements to trucks have been dramatic recently, such as improved comfort and safety features, automatic transmissions and improved connectivity for drivers.    Even truck stops are becoming more attractive with improved food options, clean showers, WIFI and other comfort related features. 

While trucking companies and schools like Roadmaster Drivers School in Millington work to fill demand for drivers, barriers such as COVID-19remain, meaning that shortage will continue and so will job opportunities for new students and ongoing job security for those starting their new career.   

Brad Ball is CEO of Roadmaster Drivers School, a nationwide training organization for truckers.

They have more than 25 years of experience training more than 100,000 graduates with 13 training locations nationwide including in Memphis, Tennessee.

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