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ATA: Industry ends 2018 short more than 60,000 drivers

A shortage in the number of qualified drivers could more than double by 2028 if conditions don’t change, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

In its latest report issued today on the state of truck driver employment in the United States, ATA found that the industry needed 60,800 more drivers at the end of 2018 to meet the country’s demand for freight services, up 20 percent from 50,700 estimated last year. That number could jump to 100,000 drivers in five years and 160,000 drivers by 2028, according to the association.

“Over the past 15 years, we’ve watched the shortage rise and fall with economic trends, but it ballooned last year to the highest level we’ve seen to date,” said ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello. “The combination of a surging freight economy and carriers’ need for qualified drivers could severely disrupt the supply chain.”

Among the factors detailed in the report contributing the shortfall – the bulk of which is in the over-the-road truckload market – is an aging driver population. The report found that the median age of over-the-road truck drivers is 46 compared with 42 for all U.S. workers. In the private fleet sector, drivers have a median age of 57 years old, the study found.

Other contributing factors cited in the report include increases in freight volumes and competition from other blue-collar careers.

The report contends that if current trends continue, “there will likely be severe supply chain disruptions resulting in significant shipping delays, higher inventory carrying costs and perhaps shortages at stores.” Because trucks account for 71.4 percent of all tonnage moved in the U.S., ATA points out, “it is highly unlikely that the driver shortage could be reduced in any significant manner through modal shift (i.e., shifting a large amount of freight from the highways to the rails).

Why 1.1 million new drivers will be needed. Source: ATA

In order to meet the nation’s freight demand, ATA asserts that the trucking industry will need to hire 1.1 million new drivers over the next decade, or an average of 110,000 per year, to replace retiring drivers and to keep up with economic growth.

The report cited market reactions such as increasing driver pay, and regulatory changes such as reducing the age limit for interstate trucking from 21, as potential solutions to the problem.

“Whether by removing barriers for younger drivers to begin careers as drivers, attracting more demographic diversity into the industry, or easing the transition for veterans, we need to do more to recruit and retain drivers,” Costello said. “That includes increasing pay, which happened at a brisk pace last year, to keep pace with demand, addressing lifestyle factors like getting drivers more time at home, and improving conditions on the job like reducing wait times at shipper facilities.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), which represents smaller carriers and independent contractors, took issue with ATA’s characterization of a shortage. “As long as there is no value placed on a driver’s time and until working conditions are improved, we will continue to see staggeringly high turnover rates in the truckload sector,” OOIDA said in a statement.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.