Trucking Industry’s Path Forward: Challenges, Innovations, and Shifting Dynamics

Annie Erling Gofus - Aug 08 2023
Published in: Mobility
| Updated Aug 08 2023
Addressing driver shortage, embracing technology, and the evolving role of truckers in the U.S. economy.

 Amid the persistent challenges of supply chain disruptions and rising consumer prices, the scarcity of truck drivers is frequently cited as a major factor causing shortages in various goods. Additionally, the driver shortage has significant implications for global mobility, resulting in delays in the shipment of household goods.

According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), the driver shortage, which stood at approximately 78,000 in 2022, is expected to double by 2031. Long-haul drivers, who endure demanding routes and extended periods on the road, are particularly scarce. The industry will need to recruit around 1.2 million drivers to fill the gaps left by retirees and others leaving the profession.

Before the 1980s, truck driving was a profitable career with the Teamsters Union holding significant influence, ensuring favorable working conditions. However, over time, truck driving transitioned from a middle-class profession to one that became less desirable.

According to the recent report from the ATA, the shortage of truck drivers is influenced by lifestyle factors. Many truckers drive routes that keep them on the road for extended periods, impacting basic lifestyle choices like nutrition and exercise, leading to potential health issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Sleep deprivation is another significant problem for truckers, as they often have to sleep in their trucks, sometimes while the vehicle is being driven by another driver, leading to mental fogginess and impaired safety for both the driver and others on the road.

Despite these challenges, the trucking industry is optimistic that improvements in conditions and increased pay will lead to higher recruitment and a more diverse pool of truck drivers.


Recruiting Efforts Amid Driver Shortage

According to the ATA, the industry needs to recruit a million new drivers in the next decade to meet demand. However, as of 2021, there were only around 2.1 million people employed as heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Additionally, a BLS report discovered that annual turnover rates at large truckload carriers averaged 94% from 1995 to 2017.

According to industry data, minorities make up 42% of truck drivers, but the majority—90%—are still men. Additionally, the trucking industry’s workforce is aging, with the average trucker being 46 years old, while simultaneously facing a growing shortage of approximately 80,000 drivers. To address these challenges, trucker recruitment efforts are now focusing on diversifying the workforce and attracting more drivers to the profession.

The trucking industry suffers from under-representation of women, veterans, and minority communities. To rectify this, efforts are needed to establish an inclusive environment that encourages and supports underrepresented individuals to pursue trucking jobs.

In recent years, women’s representation in the trucking industry has significantly grown. Currently, women make up nearly 8% of truck drivers and sales delivery drivers, according to the BLS, and the proportion rises to 14% for Class A license road drivers, nearly doubling in the last five years, as reported in the 2022 Women In Trucking Index. Notably, women have also made strides in leadership roles, accounting for a third of C-suite executives in transportation, compared to nearly 24% four years ago, according to the index.

Amid supply chain disruptions and increasing inflation in 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) introduced the Biden-Harris Trucking Action Plan. This comprehensive initiative includes a federally funded apprenticeship program for truckers, collaborating with over 100 employers and industry partners.

“Making sure truck drivers are paid and treated fairly is the right thing to do, and it will help with both recruiting new drivers and keeping experienced drivers on the job,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

The trucking industry faces a dual challenge of a driver shortage and under-representation. Solutions are being sought to ensure resilience and inclusivity; however, recruiting new drivers remains daunting due to the high turnover rate. 

Amid the driver shortage and recruitment concerns, some are contemplating the potential impact of autonomous trucks on the industry. There are questions about whether these self-driving vehicles will enhance drivers’ lifestyles or eventually render long-haul drivers obsolete.


Autonomous Trucks: Can They Transform the Trucking Industry?

Amid the various challenges faced by truck drivers, the emergence of autonomous trucks looms large. A recent academic study suggests that up to 500,000 long-haul driver jobs could be impacted by this technological advancement. Supporters of self-driving trucks highlight their potential for enhanced safety and improved efficiency compared to human drivers.

Unsurprisingly, the Teamsters are opposed to autonomous trucks. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) has issued a paper stating, “The vast majority of OOIDA members are against autonomous truck technology for a variety of different reasons, including safety, job security and cost, both for the technology itself and for infrastructure.”

According to Avery Vise, vice president of trucking for FTR Transportation Intelligence, autonomous trucks are on the horizon, but significant freight hauling by them may not occur until the second half of the next decade or later, as he told CNBC last year.

According to Vise, the most suitable applications for autonomous trucks will be long, flat stretches along interstates, as opposed to short-haul deliveries in urban areas where human drivers will still be necessary.

“I don’t think [self-driving trucks] reduce the number of drivers you need,” Vise said. “They just change the nature of the driver job, making it a local job where you’re home at night, which is where the industry wants to be anyway. If you want to drive a truck, you’ll always have a job.”

As the trucking industry grapples with its challenges, the advent of autonomous trucks presents a game-changing development. With the potential to impact up to 500,000 long-haul driver jobs, the adoption of self-driving trucks raises questions about safety, efficiency, and job security. While supporters see the promise of improved safety and flexibility, opposition from groups like the Teamsters highlights concerns regarding infrastructure, technology costs, and employment stability. 

As this technology continues to evolve, the industry faces a transformative period that could redefine the role of truckers in the years to come.


The Multifaceted Impact of Truck Driver Shortage on Global Mobility

In the world of trucking, the departure of numerous drivers has far-reaching consequences for the United States. It’s not just about the personal impact on the drivers themselves, but also disruptions to the shipment of essential goods and the reliability of goods supply. This crucial industry serves as an economic indicator, providing valuable insights into economic trends. With truckers responsible for transporting over 72% of all freight across U.S. highways, their role is paramount to the nation’s economy.

Beyond American borders, the impact of the trucker shortage reverberates globally, affecting mobility and trade. Disruptions in the shipment of essential goods can have ripple effects on the reliability of goods supply, creating potential challenges in global supply chains. As the trucking industry acts as a significant economic barometer, fluctuations in trucking activity and pricing signal shifts in global demand and trade dynamics. The introduction of autonomous trucks further adds complexity to the equation, posing questions about the future of long-haul transportation and cross-border logistics. 

The way these factors interact requires careful attention and analysis from mobility professionals as the industry changes over time. Global mobility programs and relocation companies are directly affected by the truck driver shortage. Mobility professionals need to comprehend how this shortage can potentially disrupt and influence employee relocations to ensure smooth and efficient processes.

For more perspectives on the supply chain and trucker shortages, check out the article from Mobility magazine with Frederick D. Paxton II, president and CEO of Paxton Companies, and Susan Sainz, director of account development at UniGroup.