The Truck Driver Shortage Isn’t a New Issue — the Turnover Rate in 2019 Was 91%

Supply chain issues are still dominating news headlines, as businesses find it challenging to satisfy pre-pandemic delivery times. So, while the pandemic appears to be receding, structural challenges across industries remain that threaten to make same-day and next-day delivery promises a crapshoot in the future. One of these persistent challenges is the national trucks and truck driver shortage, a crisis that predates the pandemic.

The pandemic and the truck driver shortage

A truck driver in a military uniform driving a Mercedes-Benz lorry tanker near Goole, Yorkshire
A truck driver in a lorry tanker | Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images

By mid-2020, pandemic-driven lockdowns fueled greater demand for online delivery services. Many individuals had few better options than ordering groceries online or using medicine delivery services to care for their essential needs. Demand for some goods increased so much that manufacturers had trouble keeping pace – especially given the operational restrictions that COVID risk mitigation mandates placed on them.

However, manufacturing was not the sole issue driving supply chain sluggishness throughout the pandemic. Many inside the logistics field realized that the infrastructure needed to support the surging consumer demand for online delivery had holes – trucking, chief among them. So, even as demand for drivers for private fleets and outsourced trucking service companies soared, the New York Times notes that turnover was 95% on average.

Throughout the pandemic, the trucking industry aggressively recruited new drivers with the promise of attractive salaries and lucrative sign-on bonuses. However, in 2021, the industry faced a record deficit of an estimated 80,000 drivers. Even with the pandemic beginning to wane, the truck driver deficit will likely remain at astronomically high levels throughout 2022 and beyond.

Before the pandemic, a truck driver staffing crisis

Sky-high turnover rates in the trucking industry weren’t a result of closed rest stops during the early days of the pandemic. Indeed, the year before the pandemic began and exacerbated existing supply chain problems, the truck driver turnover rate was already at 91%, according to the New York Times. Even then, the trucking industry had been vigorously recruiting new drivers.

Still retaining them was, and continues to be, a significant challenge that is top-of-mind for in-house and outsourced fleet managers. In fact, the phrase “truck driver shortage” may be a bit misleading, as one might reasonably infer that there are too few commercial driver’s license (CDL) holders available. However, in 2019, 10 million Americans held CDLs, nearly three times the amount needed to drive the nation’s commercial fleet.

Given the overabundance of CDL holders, it’s clear that there are not enough individuals working as truck drivers. This may be surprising given that it can take several months to obtain a CDL and the six-figure earning potential that is often advertised. However, it seems clear that truck drivers are leaving the field in droves, which begs the question: why?

Why truck drivers are hard to retain

Drivers are leaving the profession in droves because many feel the trade-offs aren’t worth it. Sure, the barriers to entry aren’t exceptionally high, especially with many companies not only paying for your CDL training but also offering a low wage during training. Additionally, after a few years, you can crack six figures as a truck driver, particularly if you’re willing to relocate to high-demand areas, receive certification to transport dangerous materials, or work in-house at a large corporation.

However, the truth is you may not make six figures or find a trucking gig with that kind of earning potential. In fact, even given the shortage, the industry’s aggressive recruiting yields a steady supply of new recruits each year that keeps wages from growing too high in many areas of the country. Additionally, as per the New York Times, with the steady decline in truck driver unionization, many independent companies have kept wages flat and low, while others bring drivers on as independent contractors. That status allows them to avoid paying drivers benefits or family-sustaining wages.

These factors are compounded by a job that is mentally and physically demanding. Drivers spend lots of time alone on the road, making it hard to maintain social ties. They stay seated for hours at a time, which can take a toll on one’s health. Maintaining a nutritious diet can be challenging given the stress of isolation and scarcity of good options at most highway rest stops. Lastly, driving is dangerous, with truck drivers 10 times more likely to be killed on the job than the average American worker.

So, it’s hard then to find individuals willing to pursue a dangerous and lonely life for pay that, even with just a GED, you may be able to make in a skilled trade or another profession. So, even with higher pay, the sacrifice of a social existence may not be enough to right-size truck driver staffing.

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