The truck driver shortage in the U.S. has been a hot topic of conversation recently, and for good reason. Around 73% of the freight in the US is moved by trucks; that’s over 10 billion tons of cargo in 2020. While it may seem like a new issue that’s just popped up in the last few months, this shortage has actually been a problem for years and was exacerbated by the pandemic.
According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the industry is short about 80,000 drivers right now, up nearly 30% since 2018. That doesn’t just affect materials and resources like wood, steel, or bricks, however. Truck drivers deliver everything from groceries to COVID vaccines, so this has a very direct impact on everyone’s lives.
How do truckers impact the supply chain?
The reason this is such a big deal is because of how critical trucking is to the supply chain of almost every industry. They help move everything along (no pun intended) and get finished products, as well as raw materials, from one place to another. The shortage is causing spikes in shipping costs and longer lead times, making consumer prices go up and availability go down.
Why is there a shortage of truck drivers?
As we mentioned, a truck driver shortage is nothing new. Trucking has been struggling to fill its positions for years, and the COVID-19 pandemic only made the situation more obvious. The primary cause of the shortage is from the long-haul business (usually 200+ mile trips) rather than more local transport. While the trucking industry as a whole has seen declines, the hardest hit has been these long-haul and non-local truckers.
The first reason trucking companies have been struggling is due to the age of their employees. Most truck drivers are above the age of 45, with very few young people entering the industry. This means that not enough people are coming in and replacing the ones leaving to offset and balance things, so the workforce has seen a steady decline as many retire or leave for other reasons.
One of the reasons not many young people want to join the industry is the lack of work-life balance. Often, drivers spend days on the road away from their families and are only given a few days at home between trips. With the pandemic and lack of drivers, those left are forced to pick up the slack and get even less time to rest and spend time away from work. Understandably, drivers are exhausted and it doesn’t give any incentive for those considering starting in this line of work, which further compounds the shortage.
During the pandemic, we saw the price of steel drastically increase, for much the same reasons as is causing the driver shortage. With the supply (steel mills) lowering output while demand for the product stays flat or even increases as economies start to open back up, the price for said products will increase.
While the price offered for steel increased, truck drivers have argued that their pay hasn’t seen an increase to match. Consequently, there isn’t an increasing incentive to go with the increase in demand, leading many to become frustrated with their employers or even leave their jobs entirely. The good news is that we’ve recently seen more and more distributors increasing the salaries for truck drivers as well as offering signing bonuses to bring new hires in.
Hiring standards (experience, license, etc.)
While getting people interested in becoming a trucker is one thing, actually hiring one is an entirely different story. While the hiring requirements are justifiably rigorous, some factors disqualify a lot of those who might have been initially interested.
For instance, like many job openings, relevant experience is required, but you also need a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), which can take 2 months to complete. This limits the new people who want to get started and amplified the age issue we discussed earlier. Another hiring requirement that impacts whether young drivers can become truckers is the law that commercial drivers need to be 21 years old. All of these mandates and prerequisites lead to many more positions being available than people who qualify and are hired for them.
Impact of COVID-19
That brings us to the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the trucking industry. Because of factors such as the work-life balance and subpar wages, many truck drivers decided to simply leave the field of work in search of other opportunities. Even worse, truck driving schools closed down so new drivers couldn’t go through training or receive their licenses. Because of that, there was a huge outflow of experienced drivers but no way to recruit new ones. Through these changes and limitations, the pandemic worsened the already-existing struggle of trucking company hiring managers.
Steel transport trucking
As we touched upon at the beginning, trucks transport a huge variety of goods and materials — both that you might buy at the store as well as things that help build or maintain the store itself. One of the most important materials often carried by trucks is steel.
Pieces like steel beams or coils usually need to be shipped by flatbed due to their dimensions and weight, and delays in the supply of these materials hurt a wide range of industries. The current truck driver shortage has affected supplies for the infrastructure around you, the transportation you use, the machines that collect the food you eat, and much more.
The perfect storm, but the worst is hopefully behind us
However, there’s reason to be hopeful: Our current situation was caused by an unlikely perfect storm of circumstances. The decline of an already-weakened workforce, an increase in demand for goods as the pandemic (hopefully) rounds the corner, and a shift to cargo shipping that congests unprepared ports. While they had some impact on each other, everything aligned to create a shortage and freeze that had a huge impact on the national supply chain.
Despite this, peak shortage and delays are likely behind us as the residential construction sector is seeing less strain now that we’re heading into the colder months. It will free up more trucks and drivers to lend a hand to the long-haul distribution and transport of materials and goods so we can begin recovering from the supply chain interruption, just in time for the holidays.