Truck driver shortage souring the American sweet tooth

Brandon Fried is the executive director of the U.S. Airforwarders Association

One of my vices is a fondness for Hershey’s chocolate. This preference is not to say that I avoid products made by other chocolatiers, but when faced with the choice of several brands, Hershey’s milk chocolate is usually the preferred indulgence to my palate. The preference has always been favorable to my wallet, as well, since, up to now, when compared to most of the foreign, more exotic brands currently available, Hershey’s has always been an economical alternative. However, the price of my sweet obsession is increasing, and rising truck costs in our industry may be a big part of the cause.

Hershey’s is not alone, as many American food companies are calling out rising freight costs as a reason for lower profit margins. The dearth of drivers and higher fuel prices are making it more expensive to transport products to stores and, as a result, prices are increasing. A recent survey of more than 1,500 motor carriers and drivers indicated that an ongoing truck driver shortage remains the top issue for the industry. With strong freight demand and an aging workforce, trucking companies are feeling increasing pressure to recruit and retain the best talent.

Chocolate providers and other food companies are not the only entities dealing with the lingering problem of recruiting and retaining truck drivers. The strong economy, strict hours of service rules, airport congestion, more stringent environmental regulations and the recent electronic logging device (ELD) mandate seem to be combining into a dreadful cocktail of exceedingly high demand, scarce truck availability and higher prices.

Freight forwarders around the globe know firsthand about the truck driver shortage and have been wrestling with the challenge for quite some time. In the United States, for example, approximately 80 percent of next-day shipments within 400 miles depend on trucking, while deferred cargo relies on ground transport even more. Of course, almost all air cargo shipments rely on trucks to pick up and deliver consignments to and from airports.

The U.S. needs 50,000 truck drivers right now to satisfy current demand, with 900,000 expected to meet requirements in the next decade. The average age of truck drivers is 51 years old and, unfortunately, the average age of trainees is 30 years old. Young people are simply not applying for jobs driving larger trucks.

The trucking industry is experiencing a workforce development issue and needs to get creative to develop a future source of new drivers. All stakeholders – including shippers, the trucking industry itself, and state and local governments – must begin working together to solve the challenge of creating the trucking capacity to satisfy current and future demand.

Over the past half-century, women have increasingly entered the transportation workforce in freight-forwarding and aviation. Despite this progress in the logistics business, only 6 percent of U.S. truck drivers today are women. When surveyed about why they did not tend to pursue jobs in the trucking sector, women have consistently indicated that they would not feel safe when delivering or picking up cargo alone. Since women are capable and a potential source for truck operators, carriers must work with shipping groups to change this perception of danger. Also, initiatives, including the development of the Girl Scouts’ “Women in Trucking” merit badge and industry marketing plans to attract women drivers, are essential. Hotels, motels and even Airbnb are also developing women-friendly programs catering to the transportation industry by offering discounts, truck parking assistance and easier access to properties.

State and local governments should also harmonize credentialing and licensing, while also making federal programs more accessible. For example, young people are not applying for large truck-driving jobs since many states require applicants to be 21 years of age or older. While the minimum age for a Commercial Driver’s License is 18, most states prohibit operation by operators in this age category outside of their borders. In the U.S. military, however, 18-year-olds are eligible to operate large trucks and even fly aircraft. Fortunately, some encouraging news comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which plans to begin a pilot program that will soon allow some drivers as young as 18 with military experience to drive cross-country for private trucking companies.

Some states take four weeks to get a Commercial Driver’s License test, while each state has a different set of standards – for instance, a Texas resident driver trained in, say, Iowa must report back to his or her home state to take the exam. As a solution, the federal government can step in to assist jurisdictions by harmonizing the rules to include a national truck-training credential that is accepted by all states.

Addressing licensing and credentialing impediments will certainly help solve the driver challenge, but improvements in trucking’s lifestyle must occur as well. Returning drivers home each night, and reducing wait times at shipper and airport loading docks, will also help.

Of course, maybe my sweet tooth has been getting a cheap ride for too long, and the free market is making up for years of price stagnation by finally demanding more money to get my favorite chocolate to the store shelf.

Those interested in learning more about trucking’s impact on air cargo are invited to join us at Cargo Facts EMEA, to be held 4-6 February at The Westin Grand Frankfurt. Register before Dec. 14 to take advantage of early bird rates. To register or for more information, visit cargofactsemea.com.

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