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Disconnected Supply Chain: Where Are All the Drivers?

Despite supply chain woes and pandemic uncertainty, recent data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) shows no change in the seasonal pattern of Truck Transportation employment, which rises from spring through late summer/ early fall followed by a winter decline. 

The employment pattern may have returned as the country emerges from shutdown mode, but a significant number of people it represents have not.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the pain inflicted on the industry caused by the driver shortage, which, for the fifth year running, was number one on the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) list of Top Industry Issues. Driver retention was second place, compensation third.

Where did all the drivers go?

In 2019 a steady rate of new and returning workers joined the sector, especially women, bringing the number of truckers to an all-time high, which lasted until COVID stopped the trend abruptly in March 2020. 

Since then, increasing numbers of workers have left the sector, and in the spring of 2021, women started leaving at nearly twice the rate of men.

During their annual meeting in October, American Trucking Associations’ Chief Economist Bob Costello estimated the current driver shortage to number around 80,000, which based on current trends in demand, could rise as high as 160,000 by 2030.

Not coincidentally, there are currently more than 72,000 people listed in the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, a 50% increase over last year, all of whom are prohibited from performing

safety-sensitive functions, including operating commercial motor vehicles until they complete the return-to-duty (RTD) process. Costello also noted the pandemic spurred demand for freight while it closed DMV offices, driving schools and pushed some older drivers into early retirement.

CNBC reported on the global shortage of workers, attributing the cause only partially to the pandemic, also noting borders were closed and visa programs increasingly restricted or completely withdrawn. 

Retirements, resignations add to trend

Meanwhile, workers quit jobs in record numbers while the economy began to rebound, looking for higher pay and more flexible working conditions. In some industries, the state of the labor market has increasingly been defined by its quit rate instead of the number of new unemployment filings.

Also buffeting the labor market is the unexpected retirement of 1.5 million Americans between February 2020 through April 2021 (based on pre-pandemic trends, and still counting). In addition to COVID, some economists believe these retirements are influenced by savings accumulated from the extended and expanded unemployment benefits provided during the pandemic, a red-hot real estate market in smaller cities and rural areas plus a surging stock market boosting retirement accounts.

However, an interesting twist within this data shows a slight majority of these retirees are less-educated, lower-income earners, while the office and managerial set continues working from home.

These factors may also be providing younger workers an opportunity to hold out for jobs offering better pay, benefits and schedules. Can the trucking industry meet their expectations?

Technology’s Role in Addressing the Driver Shortage

While some of these larger macroeconomic factors play a key role in the driver shortage, one way to combat this trend is by empowering drivers to increase their performance and connectivity while on the job.

How? It starts with giving them the technology to help them reduce the friction that impedes their workflows and job satisfaction. 

Read our recent Q&A with Trimble Transportation President James Langley that not only highlights the essential role of drivers but how we are dedicated to providing solutions to help enhance their safety and productivity, wherever the road takes them.