For the fourth consecutive year, a shortage of truck drivers was the No. 1 concern of transportation companies.
That was according to a report by the American Transportation Research Institute, the nonprofit organization of the American Trucking Associations. My colleague Sarah Campbell-Miller neatly summarized the situation in the May 10 issue of Arkansas Business.
Lori Furnell has dealt with hiring drivers for the past 30 years and just recently took a new position to try to make a dent in the shortage. Furnell is president of Truck Drivers USA, which just launched an online platform to connect companies and drivers.
The platform allows drivers to fill out applications, stating their work experience, geographic range and driving preferences. Furnell’s team then matches those applications with companies that are looking for drivers with similar qualifications.
“It is exactly like truck dating,” Furnell said.
Furnell joined Truck Drivers USA after a couple of years with Walmart Inc. of Bentonville, where she was director of driver talent acquisition and helped oversee the company’s efforts to add thousands of drivers to its private transportation fleet. Before that, she led driver recruitment at Maverick Transportation in North Little Rock for 14 years.
Walmart, with its stable route network, prestige and pay, never had much of a problem finding suitable drivers, but other companies have to scramble more.
“When I started at Maverick 175 years ago, I would say a cost per lead ran us about $2 a lead; it was cheap,” Furnell said. “Right now, if you can get a cost per lead under $10 you are doing great. That’s for a company that hires all 48 states, [with a driver] who doesn’t have to have any experience [and] you have a very open hiring criteria. The more you tweak it the more expensive it is. In some cases, you’re happy to spend $25 to $35 to $50 per lead.”
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the driver shortage. Many older drivers, in an already aging industry decided to leave the field during the pandemic.
Many have not returned and might not when the pandemic ends.
While older drivers were leaving, younger drivers weren’t hiring on because driving schools were closed or limited because of COVID-19.
“We have this perfect storm,” Furnell said. “The last several months have been very hard. I don’t know if drivers are settling and not looking as much. I know that we had a lot of people make different decisions with their life because of COVID. Schools weren’t putting as many people through because of COVID, so the top of the pipeline isn’t getting filled. There are not enough people who are trained, and we have the experienced people who have elected to leave.”
Furnell said no single solution will fix the problem. Many little fixes are needed, and the level of pay is not as critical as many may believe.
“It has always been a variety of solutions,” Furnell said. “It’s the nature of the job as well. You can pay me $500,000 a year, but if the nature of the job affects my family and makes me miserable, then it is not enough. They’re making good money.”
Furnell said expanding the driver pool is most important, and that means attracting younger drivers, women drivers and non-English-speaking drivers. Women drivers currently make up approximately 6% of the drivers on the road, and the U.S. Department of Transportation requires drivers to be able to read and speak English to acquire a license.
“The big debate is always what age,” said Furnell, since drivers must be 21 to drive across state lines. “You have that big gap between 18, and some companies take 21 and some take 23 and some want them to be 25. That is a big age gap and that allows you to fall into something else.”