U.S. Faces Shortage of Truck Drivers

Feb 7, 2020  | 6 min  | Ep4525

It’s not something you generally think about when picking up a delivery off the porch but chances are it got there by truck.

According to the American Trucking Association U.S. trucks moved nearly 11 billion tons of freight in 2017, generating about $700 billion in revenue.

The number of drivers bringing you goods from faraway places is starting to decline, but there are a growing number of people who are looking to make the open road their office.

Colleen Bradford Krantz has more in our Cover Story.

These truck drivers-in-training don’t typically sign up at Iowa Central Transportation Technology Center because of reports about a national shortage facing the occupation.

But the Fort Dodge, Iowa facility’s staff, who train the students to handle 80,000-pound semi-trucks, are happy to see the men and women walk in the door. This training center and others around the country know that the U.S. needs another 60,000 drivers.

The first signs of a shortage were seen in 2005, although things improved for a few years. The trend took a turn for the worse in 2011. The shortage has grown by about 500 percent over the past 8 years. Officials with the American Trucking Associations say the shortage could climb to 160,000 in less than a decade.

Dean Fryar, Transportation Technology Center: “Eventually the driver shortage will mean the companies can’t haul the freight that they have been hauling in the past. And so then it’s going to create delays, whether it be groceries or other goods...It can cause…just a kind of chain reaction.”

Experts at the ATA say the shortage is tied, in part, to increased demand for shipment of goods, but also an increased demand for drivers with a clean driving record.

Dean Fryar, Transportation Technology Center: “In my view anyway, the insurance companies have driven it. In other words, the drivers have to be very qualified now in order to drive for trucking companies.

They better have a squeaky clean record in order to be hired.”

At the same time, the Department of Transportation, hoping to limit fatigued driving, changed regulations in 2003 and 2005 to more strictly limit a semi driver’s allowed hours behind the wheel in a given period.

Dean Fryar, Transportation Technology Center: “The hours of service rules have gotten stricter over the last few years. That’s also made a dent in the amount of money that driver can make. And it has also made a dent in the amount of drivers that companies need because … productivity isn’t quite as much.”

Those factors, combined with the retirement of older drivers and a reluctance among drivers to be away from family on long-haul, multi-day jobs, have left the industry struggling.

Deon Clayton, a 26-year-old from Fort Dodge, signed up for classes to get his Commercial Driver’s License. The idea of travelling outside of Iowa sounded more interesting to Clayton than the factory jobs he held in the past.

Deon Clayton, Transportation Technology Center, student: “I wanted to do something where I could travel and that was my main motivation for being a truck driver… I haven’t seen most of the United States and I wanted to be able to get as many states under my belt.”

Clayton was only halfway through the 11-week course when he was handed a conditional job offer by an Iowa trucking company. He had no idea the nation was facing a driver shortage until he began his training.

Deon Clayton, Transportation Technology Center, student: “I found out when I got here and was like, yeah, that’s great because I was told that this is a good time to be getting into the industry…Most students get jobs before they even leave the program.”

Agriculture has yet to be affected quite as severely as some industries. Many times, agriculture products like livestock or grain only need to be moved a short distance, allowing drivers to be home most evenings.

The idea of retirement didn’t sit well with former farmer and emergency medical service worker Don Greiner. The Missouri man agreed to help a friend whose company hauls grain and fertilizer.

Don Greiner, truck driver, Oregon, Missouri: “I can’t sit around and do nothing. I gotta be doing something. So this is probably as good as anything. I make a few dollars at it and have a good time. I enjoy the people that I work with and the other farmers…. (But) I don’t want to be going over the road or something like that where I’m gone two or three …nights a week.”

During agriculture’s busiest seasons, Greiner might work longer days than before he “retired” from his last job.

Don Greiner, truck driver, Oregon, Missouri: “I went to work at seven yesterday morning and I got home about 10 last night. So 12, 14 hours or 16 hours aren’t out of the ordinary here during harvest and planting.”

An American Trucking Associations survey shows the average age of long-haul drivers is 46, younger than other segments of the industry. The ATA suspects older drivers or semi-retirees, such as Greiner, prefer the shorter travel and avoid the long-haul jobs.

The industry, which has about 3.5 million truck drivers, believes the best solution may be to bring in more women. Right now, females represent less than 7 percent of all drivers.

Bringing in younger drivers may be another solution, but truckers currently must be at least 21-years old to drive an interstate tractor-trailer.

In the meantime, driver-assist technologies are making life on the road a bit easier. Driverless semis are being tested in several regions, and at least one company hopes to have the backup driver out of the cab in 2020. Still, the days where fewer drivers are needed are a bit down the road.

Dean Fryar, Transportation Technology Center: “I don’t foresee the shortage getting any better anytime soon.”

By Colleen Bradford Krantz, colleen.krantz@iowapbs.org

Grinnell Mutual Insurance