Short 300,000 drivers, the trucking industry needs concerted action… or is it none at all?

Posted on 02/23/2012 by David Radke

Opinions differ on how to find more truckers.

The U.S. trucking industry is fighting battles on all sides at the moment, fending off onerous new regulations all while struggling with high fuel prices. But when most trucking companies are asked what worries them most, chances are good that their answer will be simply finding people to drive their trucks.

The number of vacant position has been steadily growing, and could double from last year to this year, consulting firm FTR Associates told Bloomberg. By this summer, there could be as many as 300,000 full-time truck driver positions sitting empty, and quite a lot of good waiting to be delivered in the meantime.

"The truck-driver population is growing at less than 1 percent a year," said Jeff Kauffman, an analyst at Sterne Agee & Leach Inc., told Bloomberg. "Freight’s growing at closer to 4 percent."

The Idaho Statesman noted recently that the steadily recovering economy has only added pressure to the situation. Increasing competition between carriers has led some companies to poach employees from their rivals. While this kind of job-hopping might not seem so bad to drivers who are making a little more money at a new job, it has hardly helped the overarching problem facing the industry.

But people are not avoiding trucking without reason, as DC Velocity points out. The trucking industry faces some fairly serious barriers to entry, from the sizable investment to become an owner-operator to strict driver requirements. The industry even requires drivers to be at least 21 years old. It can be a bit hard for youngsters just coming out of high school to get excited about a career they will not be able to start for another three years.

Combined with ever-increasing driver compliance requirements, from the Compliance Safety Accountability  program to electronic on-board recorders, it is not all that hard to understand the industry's recent troubles.

DC Velocity notes that some solutions are already being put to the test here and there around the country. Higher pay and more time out of the cab are the obvious possibilities, but others like creating partnerships with driving schools or taking military experience into account are also gaining popularity. Anything to get more people interested in trucking is bound to help.

But at the end of the day, the country is still looking at shortage of 300,000 drivers. Piecemeal programs can help take the edge off the problem, but DC Velocity suggests an actual solution will need to come from concerted action on a much larger scale. If the U.S. wants to find 300,000 more drivers, it will need programs that actually reach hundreds of thousands of people. That could mean a national effort to reduce the restrictions on younger drivers, or maybe even more controversial measures like opening the southern border to qualified drivers interested in coming to the U.S.

Not everyone agrees that these kinds of dramatic action are necessary, though. Truckinginfo's Jim Park points out that one recent report suggested raising driver salaries to as much as $60,000, or nearly 20 percent less than what Park himself made more than 15 years ago.

He points out that the U.S. trucking industry stands apart from much of the developed world in relying on per-mile pay that leaves drivers struggling to scrape together decent wages, and all too often working for nothing when it comes to unloading, filing paperwork or countless other minor hassles. Those companies that are willing to pay for their drivers, he suggests, might find people a bit more receptive to the idea of trekking back and forth across the country.


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