Can immigrants fill the driver ranks?

(Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

It is well known, although disputed, that the trucking industry struggles with a shortage of drivers, and this incidentally also tops the concern of the ELD mandate. It is estimated that driver vacancies have reached nearly 50,000 this year and if the trend continues, it could explode to six figures in the next decade.

Apart from driver scarcity, fleets need to contend with the lack of qualified drivers, which worsens the situation. Since truck hauling involves long hours on the road, tight schedules to adhere to, and months of being separated from family, there is a significant amount of hardship surrounding the profession - placing it in a grey spot.

Certain experts believe that to tempt the younger generation to take up the profession, driver pay must be considerably increased, and incentives floated. This is critical because the average age of drivers stands at 49, which means the industry needs to grapple with driver retirement soon if tangible improvement is not seen in the state of affairs.

Scrutinizing the means to the end, a part of the solution might surprisingly lie somewhere else - with the thousands of migrants moving into the country every year in search of opportunity and better living standards.

The U.S. economy is seeing a burgeoning growth in the e-commerce industry, which is fueled by the increase in consumer spending. Since the success of the e-commerce industry depends heavily on freight moving, it is vital to have a constant injection of workers to the trucker population, sans which the industry might face a decline.

The demographics of the trucking community seems to support use of immigrants as well. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2012, immigrant truck drivers constituted 15.7% of the total truck drivers in the U.S. - making them an integral part of the industry.

Though it is understood that most of the foreign-born drivers originate from Latin America, it is interesting to note that one-third of the immigrant drivers are of European and Asian descent. And to a lot of immigrants, truck driving seems to be an attractive option for work.

Reports suggest that the rate of increase in truck drivers of foreign descent is higher than the rate of immigration into the U.S. - particularly true in states like California and New Jersey - where foreign-born truck drivers constitute over 40% of the total trucker workforce.

Though immigrant workers are helping stabilize the trucking industry, it is believed they pose a broader problem for the local trucking community. Most of these workers migrate from impoverished conditions, making them prone to being exploited by large corporate trucking companies. They are made to work extended hours for a lesser pay, which in turn affects the whole community with regard to workers’ rights and incentives.

But Justin Lowry, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Immigration Research of George Mason University disagrees with that presumption. “I think it is a difficult argument to contextualize on a larger scale,” he told Fleet Owner. “Even though you may see an initial trend of lower wages for immigrant workers, I don’t think it means that the immigrants are causing the wages to be lower.”

Historically, wages have always been low for immigrant workers in every industry, with it increasing over time, and thus the trucking industry is not an aberration.

For the collective good of the industry, measures can be taken to facilitate a smoother integration of the immigrant workforce into the system by providing them English language training and removing legal barriers to entry could be eased for a seamless transition.

With some in the industry now turning to felons to fill the driver shortage, there is a population of people in this country already looking for jobs that would willingly accept a driving position in search of that better life.

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