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Survey says driver shortage, driver compensation top trucking industry concerns

Motor carriers and drivers diverge in ranking what matters most to them

The driver shortage ranked No. 1 for the third consecutive year among critical issues facing the trucking industry. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

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) annual study. 

The shortage of for-hire, long-haul drivers was the top issue in ATRI’s annual survey that has taken the industry’s pulse for the last 15 years.

ATRI released the 2019 critical issues results October 6 at the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) Management Conference and Exhibition in San Diego. 

Motor carriers, who made up 51% of the 2,000 respondents, overwhelmingly picked the driver shortage, which the ATA pegged at 60,800 at the end of 2018. The issue did not crack the Top 10 for commercial drivers.

Drivers, comprising 35% of respondents, listed driver compensation as their top issue. It made the overall list for the first time, ranking third. Carriers, who raised driver pay an average of 6% in 2018 when truck capacity was tight, did not list the issue in their Top 10.

The lack of acknowledgement by the two groups on driver shortage vs. driver pay points to a longstanding chicken-and-egg argument 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 trained to take their place. The ATA projects a shortage of 105,000 for-hire drivers by 2023 if nothing changes. The shortage could balloon to 160,000 by 2028.

“There is no one reason. There is no one solution,” said Bob Costello, the ATA’s chief economist who regularly projects driver shortage and turnover numbers.” 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, USA Truck Inc. CEO James Reed said during an ATA panel discussion. 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 as “a real job” becomes appealing.

“How do you break that cycle?” Reed asked.

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

“Anybody can be trained,” Helms said. “These new trucks practically drive themselves.”

The ATA is lobbying for pending legislation that would allow 18-to-20-year-olds to drive inter-state rather than just within one state’s borders. 

Carriers 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, Costello said.

Where they agree

Carriers and drivers listed the same issue on their surveys in 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).  

Hours of service, which ATRI President and Chief Operating Officer Rebecca Brewster said has made the list every year, 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, Reed said.

“We need to find a way to it back in the hands of professional drivers,” he said. “Ultimately, they know best.”

Detention and 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 an ATRI study.

For drivers, the pain points are watching their 14-hour driving clock tick away while detained. A lack of break areas and clean restroom facilities also matter. Carriers look to the bottom line cost of their equipment sitting instead of earning money.

“I will price lanes differently based on dwell times and how (shipping facilities) treat our drivers,” Reed said.

The ELD 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 (AOBRDs) 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.

A 2018 ATRI study found that congestion and traffic bottlenecks account for 1.2 billion hours of lost productivity annually. That is the equivalent of 425,000 drivers sitting idle for a full year, And the idling consumes 6.87 billion gallons of fuel, Brewster said.

“Imagine what we could do if we could eradicate that cost,” Reed said. “The federal government has not shown the will to address this.”

The ATA maintains its proposed federal fuel tax increase of five cents a year over four years is the most economical and efficient way to address critical infrastructure needs. A $2 trillion package that President Donald Trump campaigned is stalled in Congress.

“The takeaway for me is how closely tied together these issues are,” Brewster told FreightWaves. “There is no way to pick just one and fix it.”

Overall 2019 ATRI critical issues list:

1. Driver shortage

2. Hours of Service

3. Driver compensation

4. Detention/delay at customer facilities

5. Truck parking

6. Driver  retention

7. ELD mandate

8. CSA

9. Transportation infrastructure/congestion/funding

10. Economy

Carriers and drivers critical issue priorities

Commercial Drivers Motor Carriers

1. Driver compensation 1. Driver shortage  

2. Hours of service 2. Driver retention

3. Truck parking 3. Hours of service

4, ELD mandate 4. CSA

5. Detention/delay at customer facilities 5. Infrastructure/


6. Speed limiters 6. Detention/delay at customer


7. Driver training standard 7. Economy

8. Driver distraction 8. ELD mandate

9. Infrastructure/ 9. Insurance cost/availability


10. Autonomous truck technology 10. Tort reform


  1. Roger

    I went to the oil fields of ND when my last OTR paycheck failed to pay the bills.60 to 70 hrs a week there and close to $100,000.00 yr with 14 days off every 2 to 3 months. Got outta dept fast stashed some away and after failing to get my wife to move to ND I came back home and now make less than 1/2 what I was making in the oil field as a driver.
    The gov mandates and owners both big and small operators always crying about not making money but expect us as drivers to suck it up and work for way less than we should.
    The heart of trucking has been torn out and now they are trying to replace it with technology that will not require drivers.

  2. Pickolizac

    It is not normal that freight price is droping every day but insurance, fuel , repair everything stay the same off course people cant afford to have their own equipment on the road

  3. Robin Perkins

    Drivers have to give up family life practically to send home a liveable paycheck. They have to sacrifice everything to support themselves and family. The pay is terrible for company drivers. My husband loves being a truck driver he’s been doing it 16 1/2 years but it’s been hard as hell and almost broken up our marriage several times over amount of time he can spend at home because he can’t give up the time/miles so he can support the family.

  4. Amanpreet Dhindsa

    First thing that should be taken care of is brokerage that is pushing smaller companies with low rates ..brokers becoming millionaries and trucking companies shutting down …minimum wage needs to be established for drivers with a certain experience..means some certain amount that has to be paid to a driver .could be cents per mile or hourly for short run..

  5. Max

    If there is such a driver shortage why are freight rates so low and freight is damn near nonexistent. I think this crisis is fabricated in order to approve autonomous class 8 vehicles much faster once the technology is half ass ready. Its clear with the way ELD hos is structured they could care less about drivers being human.

    1. Scott Stremmel

      I agree with you Max, all this has to be fabricated to make way for the autonomous class 8. I’m a very small company of just two trucks. I can get drivers who want to run either way with or without ELD. I’m not having any problem getting freight just having problem getting the rates to compensate driver pay, fuel cost , maint cost and still show a profit. With these rates it’s everything to do just to pay the driver and fuel with nothing else!!! It’s all a scam.

      1. Truckguy

        It’s interesting to read these two comments. The first asks “how can there be a driver shortage with rates so low?” The second answers the question with “I can get drivers who want to run.” So there are drivers willing to work for the low rates. This looks more like natural employment dynamics (there are drivers willing to work for low pay) than a scam or conspiracy.

  6. David W Ramsey

    If the ata is so concerned bout driver shortage why did they lie to get the eld mandated alot of drivers left because of that an its not safer, quit treating drivers like shit treat them like human beings, an quit letting young ppl with only 6 months experience train thst is just stupidity, minimum of at least 5 to 10 yrs experience before they train, an remember no drivers no company an remind dispatcher of that thought an quit looking at drivers as turn over but as hard woring men an women to be treated as such

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Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.