It might no longer come as a surprise to most Americans that there is a shortage of truck drivers. Even those with no involvement in the trucking industry have been affected by shortages, delays and price rises of essential goods and services over the past year or so.
What may come as a surprise to the average shopper, however, is that this shortage is entirely unprecedented, and the worst of its kind in recent history. This is according to industry professionals currently attempting to grasp how this came to be and, more pressingly, how this can be addressed.
The trucking profession has admittedly been under-staffed in the US for quite some time now. Aspects of the job’s lifestyle are not suited to everyone and there have been concerns for a while now that trucking companies do not do enough to ensure their drivers' safety and welfare on the road.
Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Association (ATA), acknowledges that the industry has struggled to recruit drivers for a while. Yet he insists “before the pandemic, we were adding drivers to the industry – even though we had a shortage, more people were entering the industry.”
This is sadly no longer the case. Figures from the ATA this month show that the industry is short by a record 80,000 drivers. This record has a lot to owe to the pandemic it would seem, with 30% of the deficit coming since Covid hit last year. ATA CEO Chris Spear recently told CNN that if nothing is done to address this shortage, the shortage could double by 2030.
It would appear that the cracks already beginning to show in trucking before 2020 have only widened since the pandemic began. Smart Trucking, an industry blog written for truckers, says a number of factors were already driving qualified truckers away from the profession pre-Covid, including hazardous conditions; long periods away from family; low pay and controversial policies such as mandatory dash cams. These issues became worse heightened during the pandemic, when demand was increased by a rise in online shopping and driving schools were closed meaning no new recruits to lighten the load.
Faced with a total break down in supply chains, companies are now taking steps to limit the mass exodus of drivers . Costello claims the industry is raising pay at five times the historic average in a bid to make the job more appealing. ATA have also been working to combat the demographical issues in trucking, specifically that the young workforce is no longer flocking to the industry. Costello notes that the average age for a driver to become qualified and start driving is 35, and the existing workforce is only ageing and retiring without replacement at the other end.
There have been discussions about dropping the age for commercial interstate driving from 21 to 18, paired with the introduction of the Drive-SAFE act earlier this year, to combat this demographic problem. The act seeks to keep under-21s safer when trucking through apprenticeships with experienced drivers, thereby making the profession more attractive. But it’s not likely to make the difference alone. Recruiting new drivers from aboard seems to be the most viable solution in the eyes of many, with countries such as South Africa, Canada and Mexico providing ideal grounds for recruitment . This strategy presents its own complications though, chiefly in the shape of visa approval.
Jose Gomez-Urquiza is the CEO of Visa Solutions, a company that seeks to place foreign workers in the US transport industry. He has has called for exemptions to be made for the transport industry in their efforts to place foreign workers. This might involve speeding up the approval process for EB-3 permanent work visas for prospective truck drivers. By placing them on the Department of Labour’s Schedule A list, visa approval time could be cut from an average of 18 months to just six.
A move like this would be welcomed by industries that are acutely affected by the driver shortage, such as the oil industry. However, truck drivers are responsible for moving roughly two thirds of U.S. freight, and a solution based on slightly speedier immigration might barely touch the sides. You only need to look at the record number of ships floating off the Port of Southern California to see the scale of the problem faced by supply chains. Without a more substantial solution, these blockages could become a permanent fixture.