Driver shortage not just about pay, year-end report says

The National Transportation Institute’s year-end roundup contained one surprising data point after another. The report’s conclusion, however, didn’t come as much of a shocker.

“The biggest takeaway is we’ve got a systemic labor problem,” said NTI president and CEO Gordon Klemp during a phone conference last Friday. “We don’t see a simple solution.”

Klemp and NTI’s COO Leah Shaver dug into some of the data showing how fast and by how much driver pay is increasing — and how the dollar signs still aren’t closing the gap between driver demand and supply.

Over the past three quarters, the average pay increase across all regions of the U.S. clocked in at 8.3% — the biggest jump since NTI started tracking moves in 2004-2005.

Pay increase cycles typically fall into the same pattern, Shaver said. The leading carriers move first, followed by middle payers and finally the lower quartile payers make adjustments. 

This process typically takes 30 months or more. But the most recent pay cycle was compressed to only 10 months, followed immediately by a new round of increases. 

Most important: those multiple pay moves did not result in companies’ meeting their hiring goals.

Out of a sample of 37 fleet owners, one hundred percent of the people who made changes in pay cycle reported periodic improvements in retention, said Shaver. “But 100% are still not meeting hiring goals.” 

Nineteen percent made more than two changes in the recent pay cycle, she noted. “That’s amazing.”

In an effort to retain drivers, fleet owners are doubling down on recruitment of women and minorities, eliminating some job requirements and allowing “any comfort driver could appreciate at home on truck,” Shaver said. Dogs and amenities for dogs are high on the list of driver wants.

Fleets are also investing more in internal and external marketing campaigns, and boosting sign-on bonuses. It’s not making much of a difference.

“Driver supply is inelastic in the short term,” Klemp said. 

A tight blue collar labor market is a big factor behind the shortage. But Klemp ticked off other reasons why fleets were having a hard time seating their trucks: increased regulation, the physical demands of the job, long, uncertain hours, ubiquitous technology and the job’s decline in social status.

These concerns are unlikely to diminish in the future. Young people aren’t interested in being truckers, Klemp said.

What is more: In a time when marijuana continues to become legal, the population that previously would have considered truck driving as a 2nd or 3rd career choice, will no longer do so due to drug testing.

The year end roundup concluded on an upbeat note— sort of.

“Some of the known technology that can make a big impact are at least three to five years out from real wide-spread use, too long under current economic projections,” NTI noted on the last slide that accompanied the presentation.

“[But] history teaches us that big problems attract money and innovation.”