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Truckers Still Feeling Driver Pinch

3 min read

In case you were wondering, there is still a significant driver shortage in the trucking industry.

You don’t have to take my word for it (although, it does hurt my feelings just a little if you don’t). Believe Bob Costello, the chief economist and senior vice president of the American Trucking Associations. Costello and analyst Rod Suarez put together the organization’s Truck Driver Shortage Analysis.

The analysis reported an expected shortage of a record-high 47,500 drivers by the end of 2015, an increase of nearly 10,000 from the year before. The report said driver shortage has been a growing problem since the industry began to recover from the recession in 2011.

That makes sense. During the down times, less business activity was easier to handle. Now freight volumes are increasing at the same time potential drivers have more opportunities to take non-driving jobs, and the shortage is being felt with growing intensity.

Worse news: Costello and Suarez report that if — and “if” is an important word here — this trend continues, the shortage could reach 175,000 drivers by 2024. Nearly 70 percent of the nation’s freight is hauled over roads by trucks, so it’s kind of important to have drivers for all this stuff.

Interestingly, Costello and Suarez said that many companies feel the shortage is worse because so many applicants fail to qualify for a position. That reminded me of Maverick Transportation of North Little Rock, a company that last year built a $4 million training center and raised pay for all of its drivers, new and experienced.

A year or so ago, CEO Steve Williams told me that if 500 qualified drivers showed up for work, he could use all of them.

So I called Maverick to see how the driver pinch was affecting it. Dean Newell, the vice president of safety and driver training, said the recent training upgrades and pay hikes have not solved the problem, yet.

Newell said Maverick has approximately 30 trainees in each week of its six- to 10-week training program.

“I don’t know if it has helped; it hasn’t hurt,” Newell said. “The driver shortage is real. We’re not full by any standard.”

Maverick, of course, is not the only trucking company looking for solutions. USA Truck Inc. of Van Buren has scaled back its lane coverage and is in the process of reducing its number of tractors.

It has also promoted a new “Choose Your Hometime” program so drivers can have more flexible, family-friendly schedules.

Simple math illustrates one of the biggest causes of the driver shortage. The average age of an over-the-road driver, according to the ATA, is 49 and the incoming numbers do not keep up with the outgoing (retiring) numbers.

On a related note, Costello and Suarez said, because drivers have to be 21, the trucking industry is missing out on any possible candidates aged 18-21. Women drivers are lacking, too, making up just 6 percent of the driving force.

The report points out that the trucking industry is missing out on a large demographic that may have found other things to do by the time they turn 21 and, thus, are lost forever. The ATA said one possible solution was lowering the driving age to 18.

The ATA said the pinch seems more severe because trucking companies’ high standards have meant that 88 percent of job applicants have been rejected. Newell, at Maverick, said most of the rejected applicants have poor driving records or fail a drug test.

Those decisions are forced by insurance underwriters, who wouldn’t insure a driver with a history of DWI or reckless driving. Maverick spends up to $10,000 to train each driver, a sizable investment.

“We have to vet them pretty good,” Newell said. “We try to screen them. If we do our part and they do their part, they’re going to be successful for themselves and successful for the company.”

Newell, a former OTR driver, said there is no single solution to the driver shortage. Things such as better pay, changing the perception of truck driving and more home time for drivers will all be needed.

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