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Navigating the road ahead: The trucker shortage, fleet management and the future

January 4, 2024

In recent years fleet management has undergone profound transformations in the U.S. Driven by the convergence of shifting consumer preferences, technological advancements, the changes wrought by the COVID pandemic, and an increasing regard for environmental sustainability, the industry has faced rapid disruption and change, leading the way for further innovation. The North American trucking industry, an integral part of the U.S. economy, has been quick to embrace these changes, but faces a pressing issue: a shortage of truckers. 

Starting in 2005, the American Trucking Association (ATA) began monitoring a potential driver shortage crisis. Since then, the potential issue has bloomed into a reality, and in a 2021 report, the ATA’s Chief Economist, Bob Costello, said the trucking industry was operating with a deficit of 80,000 drivers – the highest it has ever been. Recently, at the ATA’s 2023 Management Conference and Exhibition, Costello asserted that the shortage had since dropped down to about 60,000 drivers. Although this decrease seems positive, he says “the underlying problems facing the driver market have not gone away.”

So why has the trucking industry experienced so much employment fluctuation compared to other industries? And what can fleet managers do to attract, and more importantly, retain drivers?

The evolution of fleet management in the U.S.

To begin to understand the landscape of the over-the-road trucking industry, we must understand its history. The first trucking company in the U.S. dates back to the early 1900s, shortly after the creation of gas-powered automobiles. Fleet managers back then did not have the benefit of advanced technology, or the fleet management solutions we have today; managing fleets consisted of basic vehicle tracking, paper logs, and a great deal of guessing. Drivers manually logged their hours and routes, requiring a lot of time and legwork. Over time, these humble beginnings evolved into optimized tracking systems, cutting-edge telematic solutions, and mechanizations for controlling spend and reducing fraud. Throughout the evolution of the industry, truck drivers remain the backbone of global trade and commerce, executing on the daily delivery of essential goods for all American households. 

While the pandemic disrupted industries globally, it hit transportation and supply-chain markets particularly hard. The onset of the pandemic created a mass shift in almost all functions of truck driving. The immediate stop in routine shipping, combined with the increased demand for at-home and same-day deliveries, required an ambitious strategic overhaul. The economy of owning and operating a fleet was impacted heavily with sharp fuel cost increases, making long-haul trucking less lucrative. Changes in health protocols brought driver health and safety to the forefront, making all organizations overseeing laborers reexamine their procedures, and more importantly, raise the standard of care for front-line workers. 

Growing demand for full warehouses fuels the need for more truckers

Now that the COVID pandemic has subsided into a more manageable global health issue, we are faced with entirely different circumstances – we now have an abundance of goods in the supply chain. A lesson learned from the pandemic was to avoid shortages at all costs, meaning companies are now choosing to err on the side of caution and keep a large inventory of goods on hand. 

The shift in consumer preferences towards home delivery impacts supply as well, causing another variable in warehouse supply numbers. The growing demand for more readily accessible consumer goods leading to a greater demand for warehouse space has created an increase in demand for truckers. This increase in trucker demand combined with a stagnation of new drivers entering the field is exacerbating the driver hiring and retention issue faced by fleet managers nationwide.

The trucker shortage

While the ATA has reported a temporary decrease in the shortage of truck drivers in the marketplace, some issues still plague the industry, preventing new drivers from entering. While many love a life on the road and relish the freedom that comes with driving a truck for a living, it is not an ideal life for everyone. So what is the cause of the opposition to truck driving for those who haven’t taken a liking to it? The answer to that is tricky. Drivers, fleet managers, and reporters all point to different factors.  

In a recent interview New York Times columnist Peter Goodman conducted with truck driver Stephen Graves, Graves cited the time commitment to be on the road for days and sometimes weeks at a time as a dissuading factor. “He typically does not make it home by nightfall. He drives roughly 9,000 miles a month, spending two and three weeks on the road at a time, before returning home to his condo in Kingsport, Tenn.,” Goodman wrote. The trucking lifestyle can keep truckers away from their families for long periods of time, which is not for everyone. 

On the other hand, freedom and travel is what many claim to love the most about making a living as a trucker. Stephen discusses his love for the changing scenery. As he travels the expanse of North America, he encounters cities, prairies, deserts, and more. He celebrates the liberation of worklife – free from monotonous routines and cubicle-bound offices. 

Industry leaders say outdated recruitment techniques and the changing workforce have contributed to the driver shortage. ATA data reveals that while the U.S. workforce is almost half female, only 8% of the driver population is female. Historically-speaking, fleet managers recruiting for new drivers have targeted older men – this strategy is in line with deep-rooted societal expectations and norms. The question is, if recruiters were to target more women in their advertising campaigns, would they have more applicants? Given that the U.S. workforce is almost half female it would be an interesting hypothesis to test.  

Another industry shift with today’s workforce is a more widespread desire for work that allows for work-life balance. More employees across all industries are prioritizing free-time, early retirement, and spending time with family, which can make life on the road seem not so ideal anymore. Since older generations have more family responsibility, Costello suggests that fleet managers, truck driving schools, and truck driver training services target younger candidates, ages 18-22 – they likely don’t yet have a family and retirement is an abstract notion. With that in mind, it will be a good exercise for trucking companies to establish how the industry can pivot to appeal to the needs and desires of younger candidates. 

The future of truck driving: Ways to attract the drivers of tomorrow into the workforce

Addressing the truck driver shortage currently plaguing the U.S. is crucial for industry sustainability. Improving job conditions would help attract new drivers to the industry. Ensuring the appeal of the work to drivers – both male and female – will be vital to attracting a diverse workforce. The desire for a work-life balance, seen more and more as a new generation joins the workforce, means you might consider a shift towards even more flexibility for your crew of drivers.  

Daniel Most from CPC Logistics says that one way he tackles the driver shortage is through more scheduling flexibility. “For example, several younger drivers I recently helped recruit asked for a four-day work week. Although all our jobs required five days of driving per week, we developed special routes to accommodate them as well as future applicants who may want a similar schedule.”

Companies are also starting to offer higher wages and better benefits for their drivers to reduce attrition in the workforce. Walmart made significant policy changes in 2022 introducing a private fleet development program, allowing drivers to earn their commercial driver’s license over the course of 12 weeks. These changes were accompanied by a much welcome driver salary increase. Many are following that model and creating their own development initiatives, employing truckers and then allowing them to learn and grow into their position while on the job. It’s this kind of flexible, outside-the-box thinking that will help the industry get beyond the current driver shortage.

Increased use of telematics and fleet management solutions also play a vital role in the evolution of the trucking industry. Technology allows managers to optimize operations and, by using these modern tools, collect real-time data on vehicle performance, driver behavior, routes and more, allowing management to make informed and timely decisions. The continuous improvement of fleet management technologies, along with proactive reform of working conditions, will ultimately benefit both truck drivers and businesses alike. 

WEX is a leading, global fintech solutions provider, simplifying payments and back-end business processes in the fleet management, benefits management, and corporate payments areas. To learn more, please visit the company’s About WEX page.

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American Trucking Association
New York Times
Trucking Dive

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