Trucking Industry Concerns: Driver Shortage and Compensation

Motor carriers and drivers disagree on the most serious issues.

October 09, 2019

ARLINGTON, Va.—Motor carriers and commercial drivers agree on just four of the top 10 challenges  facing the trucking industry, according to the American Transportation Research Institute’s (ATRI) 15th annual study released this week. 

Today’s number one issue for motor carriers is the shortage of for-hire, long-haul drivers. At the end of last year, the shortage was estimated by the American Trucking Association (ATA) to be at 60,800, but that challenge did not crack the top 10 list for commercial drivers. Rather, drivers listed driver pay as their top issue. Carriers, who raised driver compensation an average of 6% in 2018 when truck capacity was tight, did not list the issue in their top 10.

The disparity between the two groups regarding driver shortage vs. driver pay points to a longstanding disagreement over whether the industry would have a shortage if drivers were better paid. What is not in dispute is that many drivers are reaching retirement age with few young people training to replace them. The ATA predicts a shortage of 105,000 for-hire drivers by 2023 if nothing changes, and that shortage could jump to 160,000 by 2028.

“There is no one reason. There is no one solution,” said Bob Costello, ATA chief economist, who regularly projects driver shortage and turnover. “This is not just an issue in the U.S. It affects Europe, Mexico and China, too.”

The average age of a driver trainee is 35 years old, said James Reed, CEO of USA Truck Inc. Rather than seeking trucking as a career in their 20s, young people pursue other options. As they marry and start families, the permanence of a trucking career becomes appealing.

Gary Helms, a driver for Covenant Transportation Group, said recruiting middle-aged men and women seeking a second career could help the problem. He became a trucker after a 25-year career in construction and hopes that 18-to-20-year-olds will be cleared to drive across state lines.

The ATA is lobbying for legislation that would allow 18-to-20-year-olds to drive interstate rather than just within the borders of a single state. Carriers also are trying to attract women, who make up 47% of the workforce but account for just 6% of truck drivers. Converting some of the nearly 1 million drivers for ridesharing companies, like Uber and Lyft, to trucking is another possibility.

Surveyed carriers and drivers agreed on four areas: hours of service (No. 2 overall); driver detention and delays at customer facilities (No. 4 overall); the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate (No. 7 overall); and transportation infrastructure/congestion and funding (No. 9 overall).  

The hours of service issue has made the list each year and continues to vex both carriers and drivers. Flexibility is central to rule changes proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. But even those proposals fall short. “We need to find a way to it back in the hands of professional drivers,” Reed said. “Ultimately, they know best.”

Delays at shipper facilities made the list for the first time. Carriers and drivers ranked it sixth and fifth, respectively. Waiting times to load or unload of six hours or longer rose 27% between 2014 and 2018, according to ATRI. A lack of break areas and clean restroom facilities also matter.

The electronic-logging mandate continues to fall lower on the list. Drivers ranked it fourth. Carriers placed it eighth. The deadline is December 16 for the final stage of electronic logging—converting trucks from Automatic On Board Recording Devices to ELDs. Carriers and drivers agreed on the ninth overall critical issue—infrastructure repairs, how to pay for them and the impact on traffic congestion.