Experts warn driver issue will be “huge”

The one problem trucking did not have during the recession was a driver shortage. That chronic complaint was temporarily salved by the simple lack of freight. Returning prosperity, however, also means a return of the driver problem, and it is apt to be significant, according to analyst Eric Stark, president of FTR Associates

The one problem trucking did not have during the recession was a driver shortage. That chronic complaint was temporarily salved by the simple lack of freight. Returning prosperity, however, also means a return of the driver problem, and it is apt to be significant, according to analyst Eric Stark, president of FTR Associates.

“The driver issue will be huge,” Stark told Fleet Owner. “During the downturn, many fleets got rid of their capacity to bring more people into their organizations. They cut back on things like driving schools, recruiters, and so on. Now we are looking at a labor pipeline issue. Trucking just won’t be able to get enough people through the system. If the recovery continues, we could see severe driver shortages by the end of the year. We are hearing that some fleets are having problems already.”

According to Stark, the driver shortage is both a short-term and long-term issue for trucking, each with different causes. “In general, if the industry could miraculously process enough people [as freight levels ramp back up] then we’d have no driver problem in the short term,” he notes. “Longer term, however, trucking still has to face the issue of how to attract more people to the industry.”

Moves like changing driver pay levels and making the job of driving more attractive could help address the long-term shortage, but they can’t solve the short-term problem, Stark said. As aresult, he expects to see driver pay emerge as an issue in 2012-2013.

Stark is far from alone in predicting a long-term driver shortage problem. “I believe there has been and continues to be an underlying driver shortage that was just temporarily interrupted by the downturn,” Michael Hinz, vp of driver recruiting for Schneider National, told Fleet Owner recently. “The driver demographic is changing as older, experienced drivers are retiring and leaving the business. We need to ensure that we have jobs available that meet the needs of both experienced drivers and new drivers. This means looking at your operation in a new way.

“We have to think about how we create work,” Hinz continued. “The work/life balance has become even more important, for example. More drivers want to be home every day, or every week now. There are fewer people who want to be on the road two to four weeks at a time.”

Kevin Burch, president & CEO of Jet Express and past chair of the Truckload Carriers Assn., shared a similar view while moderating a roundtable discussion for truckload carriers at the annual ALK Technology Summit this spring. A recovering economy with more job options, an aging workforce, new safety regulations and a poor industry image will create “a perfect storm” that will leave trucking with a severe driver shortage, he stated.

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