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Will Autonomous Trucks Solve the Truck Driver Shortage?

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Inflation isn’t solely to blame for higher price tags on goods. There’s also a shortage of truck drivers. Without enough truckers to get commodities from Point A to Point B, the cost of shipping has gone up. Like any industry, trucking has gone through phases of both too few and more than enough willing, eligible potential employees. However, the last few years have seen a steady increase in the freight business along with a steady decline in drivers. Current truck driver shortage solutions include higher pay, shorter routes, and opening intrastate routes to younger drivers. Each of those ideas are good ones, but they may not be enough to keep up with the growing shortage, let alone get ahead of it. Technology may provide the ultimate answer with trucks that eventually won’t need drivers.

What is Causing a Shortage of Truck Drivers?

To pinpoint truck driver shortage solutions, it’s useful to look at what’s causing the shortage. First, there’s increasing demand. Over the last two decades, the amount of tonnage shipped across the country has steadily gone up. Yet, the number of U.S. truck drivers hasn’t fluctuated much, remaining near 3 million. That means roughly the same number of drivers have been hauling an increasing amount of goods.

Next, Baby Boomers nearing retirement age make up the bulk of working drivers. At the same time, the next generation—the one that should be ready to take over jobs as they become available—is about 12 percent smaller. Therefore, there are more job opportunities than there are people to fill them.

Additionally, some say safety, lifestyle, and pay are partially to blame for the shortage. Truck drivers spend a lot of time on the road away from home. That way of life can be difficult to deal with, and it contributes to the high divorce rate among drivers. Plus, trucking is listed as one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. The increased freight demand coupled with the driver shortage puts more demands on working truckers. Considering there were 918 fatalities in 2016 and 80 percent of those resulted from vehicle accidents, the danger factor is a real concern. And that’s all aside from the pay. It’s discouraging to compare what a paid-by-the-mile driver brings home to the hours he spends on the job. Industry pros seeking truck driver shortage solutions are taking all of these issues into account.

Stats and Info About the Shortage

Before we get into truck driver shortage solutions, let’s take a look at some of the statistics and information that affect the situation.

For instance, more than half of truck drivers are 45 and older. Plus, there are currently about 1,871,700 driver jobs and it’s projected that there will be close to 2 million by 2026. With 55 percent of the driver base looking to retire over the next 15 years, that means filling more than a million vacated jobs over the next few years.

In fact, between the retiring workforce and increased demand, the shortage is growing too fast for the industry to keep up:

  • 2016—the shortage was over 36,000.
  • 2018—it was around 63,000.
  • 2026—it’s projected there will be a driver shortage of 175,000.

Furthermore, trucking has one of the highest turnover rates of any industry at about 90 to 100 percent. Still, with the need to move more than 10 billion tons of freight every year, the U.S. economy would grind to a halt without truckers.

Truck Driver Shortage Solutions

There’s not much that can be done about the smaller workforce ready to take on driving jobs. That’s why most truck driver shortage solutions focus on controllable issues. Some ideas include:

1) Improve the Culture—Fleets can minimize the downside of driving by implementing shorter routes. For example, a driver takes a trailer to a drop off point where another driver picks it up and takes it either to the destination or another drop-off. Shorter routes mean drivers get to be home every day.

2) Adjust the Pay—Issues like detours, bad road conditions, and increased traffic in metro areas eat away at drivers’ income if they’re paid by the mile. One suggestion for making the pay more attractive is to offer signing, fuel economy, and safety bonuses. Other ideas include paying a labor fee to drivers who have to load and unload their freight and implementing flexible shipping rates that would allow fleets to pay drivers by the hour.

3) Attracting New Hires—Fleets can help brand-new drivers by paying for their training/schooling and the cost of getting their CDL. One way is by offering a program that trains them to meet the criteria for interstate transport. Also, when recruiting, consider appealing to underutilized groups, such as women, for example. Less than 7 percent of U.S. truck drivers are female.

4) Step Up Onboarding Procedures—Get to know who you’re hiring, and keep the conversation going even after they’re part of the company. That could be anything as structured as a breakfast or dinner meeting every other month with management and drivers to managers being present each morning as drivers head out. Every chance you offer drivers to check in with administration strengthens the relationship and the workplace environment.

Proposed Legislation for Truck Driver Shortage Solutions

The one way to increase workforce size is to open it up to a wider range of people. A driver must only be 18 years old to qualify for a CDL. However, licensed truck drivers have to be 21 or older to drive freight across state lines. Congress’s contribution to truck driver shortage solutions is to drop that intrastate age to 18.

While that would help fleets by extending the hiring pool, not everyone is convinced it’s a safe move. Younger drivers (those under 21) tend to be involved in more fatal crashes. Factor in a teen piloting a semi hauling 40,000 pounds through the city or on the highway and you’ll see why the intrastate age minimum is 21. Still, even insurance specialists feel that there’s a happy and safe medium. Fleets can do thorough background checks and testing. They can offer extra development opportunities, too. Those could include apprentice programs or shadowings that pair newer, younger drivers with older, more experienced ones.

Autonomous Trucks Could be the Answer

Although completely autonomous trucks aren’t quite a reality yet, many are looking to driverless semis as one of the more promising truck driver shortage solutions. Even now, while they’re still testing, there are fewer responsibilities for the human pilots. Of course, the drivers still need a CDL, but the technology frees them up to multitask, catching up on paperwork or studying for continuing education or classes they’d need if they wanted to open their own business. For instance, heavy duty shop owners’ salaries are lucrative and repair shops are a related business truckers appreciate and understand.

The extra time and decreased driving fatigue could be framed as perks when recruiting new hires or viewed by fleet management as supporting arguments for lower pay. Either way, autonomous trucks could end up being both the short and long-term answer to the truck driver shortage.

 

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