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Answers to driver shortages found in expanded recruitment, regulatory change

Trucking companies focus on better work-life balance as it struggles with driver shortage


The trucking industry is facing driver shortages that are expected to grow to being more than one million drivers short in the next decade if it doesn’t do more to improve recruiting and working conditions, industry leaders say.

According to the American Trucking Association, the industry is currently facing a shortage of more than 60,000 drivers, a problem exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and an increased number of early retirements of drivers looking to make a change.

But the challenge is nothing new for the industry, which carries more than 72% of the country’s freight, according to the American Trucking Association.

“We have frankly played Chicken Little with a driver shortage and for several years there were ebbs and flows, and geographic hotspots that had difficulty finding people,” said Dan Van Alstine, president and chief operating officer at Des Moines-based Ruan Transportation Management Systems.

An undercurrent to the issue is the increasing age of drivers, said Van Alstine, who also serves as vice-chair of the national industry group.

“We face as an industry a very aging driver population; the average age of a truck driver is 57 years old,” Van Alstine said. “The driver shortage has been with us for some time and I think both the demographic influence and the significant impact of the pandemic has truly elevated this to a critical issue.”

The industry is also facing shortages in maintenance and warehouse employees, but the driving shortage is most critical, Van Alstine said.

“Technicians are a challenge, warehouse workers are a challenge, but those, while difficult, they’re just not the number in the needs that we have in the truck driving fleet,” he said.

Van Alstine declined to discuss how many openings Ruan has for drivers, but said the company has about 4,600 drivers nationwide.

Brenda Neville, president and CEO of the Iowa Motor Truck Association, said the escalation in early retirements in the past couple of years caught the industry by surprise.

“We saw a much larger number of drivers over the age of 60 during COVID that retired than we anticipated,” she said. “Some of the drivers said, ‘I put it in my 20 years or 30 years, I’m just going to tap out.’ ”

And they can leave the long-haul trucking jobs and find another driving job fairly easily, Neville said. 

“They can leave these big truckload, long haul jobs and with the agricultural base we have in Iowa, they can still do seasonal work hauling grain, doing any number of things and not have that fear factor that some of them had when they were traveling across the country,” she said.

How does the trucking industry turn around the trend of increased openings for drivers, which in some sectors of the industry has led to supply chain disruptions as products sit in warehouses waiting to be delivered?

One is to bring new people into the industry. Second is to push through regulatory change that can open the doors to more drivers at a younger age, experts said.

“The challenge we have is getting people interested in coming in to be a truck driver,” Van Alstine said. “Unfortunately, it’s the reality as a parent, it wasn’t probably a conversation you had with a child, saying it would be a great profession to get into is to be a truck driver. A lot of folks don’t see truck driving as what they want to do for their profession.”

Neville said the industry needs to step up its recruiting efforts, but needs to make changes to retain the drivers it has. Companies also are targeting spouses and families in those efforts, she said.

“They’re really sensitive to what the driver’s need, their quality of life,” Neville said. “Companies are hiring counselors to talk to drivers more, to talk to their spouses more. There’s a whole lot of things being tested and implemented. Obviously, everywhere you look you’re seeing sign-on bonuses of $15,000 to $20,000 over a six-to-eight-month period; it’s amazing what we’re seeing in the industry.”

The shortages, which traditionally affected primarily the interstate carriers, have expanded to smaller carriers, she said.

“In the last six months, I’m hearing from every imaginable kind of delivery operation,” Neville said. “Beer haulers, they can’t find drivers, the local delivery trucks that were typically the first jobs to be filled, they too are now reporting some real struggles getting drivers. It’s really become across the board.”

But at the end of the day, companies end up just swapping drivers, she said.

“It’s one company stealing a driver from another company,” Neville said. “We still need to look at getting newer and younger drivers into the industry.”

Federal law currently prohibits anyone 21 and under from driving a truck across state lines, which Van Alstine says limits the ability of the industry to bring in people right out of high school to be trained.

A bill in Congress, called the Drive Safe Act, would create an internship program for drivers between 18 and 21 years old, which Van Alstine said may attract high school graduates who don’t want to go on to college.

“What we want as an industry is to tap into that high school senior or that high school junior and create a path where they can have a very proud and profitable career in trucking,” he said. “But today’s laws prohibit 21-year-olds from driving on an interstate basis.”

In the current infrastructure bill in Congress, a pilot would be created for the Drive Safe Act that contains provisions, such as companies would be required to have a full suite of safety technologies in the truck, a training program, a co-driver program and more.

“We are focused on getting the right people in the industry but preparing them in a very safe way,” Van Alstine said.

Neville said the law is needed to get more young people into the driver’s seat.

“We’re missing that pipeline of young drivers that are very interested in the industry, but they aren’t interested in driving just in the state of Iowa,” she said.

The bill gained momentum under the Trump administration and continues to move forward under the Biden administration, Neville said.

“It’s really a model that is patterned after the steamfitters or the electricians where you are an apprentice for so many years, you drive so many miles with a coach with you,” she said.

Not all companies support the bill, though.

“There are some trucking companies here in Iowa that say even if that law passes they’re not going to put an 18-year-old behind the wheel of a truck,” Neville said.

Another path to tapping into younger drivers is promoting training programs where after six or eight months they can begin driving, and begin making good money, she said. 

Some companies already have agreements with community colleges where they pay for the training of a new employee, Neville said, and she expects those opportunities to grow as companies look to increase hiring and attract new people to the industry.

Depending on the job, the type of truck driven and the route, a starting driver can make $45,000 or more a year. With experience and long-haul routes, a driver can make up to $100,000 or more, Neville said.

The industry also needs to attract more applicants of color and more women applicants to help fill that growing gap in drivers, Neville and Van Alstine said.

“We as an industry do not source well in urban areas,” Van Alstine said. “That’s a market that we have to learn how to get better at and get into those urban environments.That is a pretty sizable part of our society that we traditionally have not been able to attract. Our sourcing behaviors and tactics are going to have to change. We’re going to have to go to different markets, go to different areas than we have historically sourced people from.”

He said big sign-on bonuses offered by some companies haven’t attracted new workers who are more interested in other factors, such as fair treatment, a schedule that better fits their lifestyle and competitive pay.

“That work-life balance, having predictability in their work life is critically important,” Van Alstine said. “The pay is almost secondary to ‘can I get home to see my son’s baseball game, can I tell my wife I will be home for our anniversary, can I tell my wife I can pick the kids up at this time.’ Those are the kinds of scheduling components as an industry that we’re just going to have to find a better way.”

And that could come at a cost, he said.

“We have such great productivity in our logistics channels across the country … but we now face a time when we may have to give up productivity to ensure we have people to do the work,” Van Alstine said. “It may not be suitable to say we have to have everything right now, so that’s going to be a challenge in our society on the horizon.” 

The shortage of drivers means more drivers putting in extra hours, which can create frustrations and result in more people leaving the industry, he said.

“If your workweek is 50 hours and your boss comes to you and says you need to work 60 hours this week, you’d say OK, I get it, but if that becomes every single week … at some point that’s going to cross a line and folks are going to get frustrated, and I do believe it leads to people saying, if this is their work environment, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore and I’ll find somewhere else to work,’” Van Alstine said.

During the pandemic, Ruan didn’t have to lay off drivers, instead diverting them from customers who may have shut down or reduced operations to those with increased demand, such as grocery stores, hospitals and retail, he said.

The company did do some short-term furloughs in some non-driving positions, Van Alstine said.

One of the reasons the company has fared better than maybe some others is because of its diverse customer portfolio, he said. 

Companies with a more narrow focus, such as hauling fuel or steel, struggled more, Van Alstine said.

Van Alstine and Neville both say they are optimistic about the future, despite the current challenges the industry is facing. 

“The awareness is there, the conversations are there, and the ideas are emerging,” Neville said. “I think when all of that stuff is happening … good things will follow. That level of awareness is much higher than it’s ever been and we’re actually having conversations about what we can do to improve, and they’re looking at a lot of different things that will impact the industry as well as the quality of life of truck drivers, and I think these are all really valuable conversations.”

Van Alstine agreed, saying he’s confident the industry will find a path forward.

“I have a strong belief that we’re going to be creative and innovative in how and where we source people,” he said. “I can’t think that we’re not going to do something. I can’t think we’re  going to do the same things, so I’m confident we’re going to find some creative ways and innovative ways to make the changes we need to make.” 

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