It's been 17 years since the Hudson Institute released Workforce 2000, a sobering report on the impact of changing birth rates and immigration patterns in the U.S. It should have been a wakeup call for trucking since it clearly stated that the industry's traditional pool for new drivers — young, white, rural males — would decline deeply before we even hit the new millennium.
After all, this report was no fuzzy think-tank speculation. It was based on projections using actual birth numbers. Simple math. Just do the numbers.
Yet the fleets most affected, truckload carriers that needed entry-level drivers to fill their seats, seemed stuck in their old ways. Certainly there was a lot of talk about the need to attract new people to the ranks, but in reality carriers spent most of their energy trying to perfect ways of luring the usual suspects from their competitors. Even if they chose to ignore them, though, the undeniable numbers made that a losing game.
Just as the pain was threatening to become mortal for the weakest of the truckload fleets, the economy granted everyone a reprieve. Of course, the cure was even worse than the disease for many since the recession drove large numbers of fleets into bankruptcy. But those that managed to hold on found that the tough job market ensured them enough drivers to deliver shrinking volumes of freight. And if you didn't look at the demographics, you might even have convinced yourself that the driver shortage was a thing of the past.
Well now the economy has begun a steady if not spectacular comeback, and so has the driver problem. We're really just on the edge of an upswing, or at least that's what we all hope, yet the surviving truckload carriers are already seeing a new driver shortage. And it's one that is growing a good deal faster than the economy.
This time, though, you shouldn't count on it being confined to the truckload operations. They've raised pay rates and improved quality-of-life issues as much as possible, which means they may succeed in retaining more drivers, if not actually begin attracting some from private and LTL fleets.
Add in continued fine-tuning of CDL requirements that will winnow out even more prospects as unfit, and that dwindling traditional pool of entry-level prospects means everyone is probably going to feel the pain this time around.
The solution is the same one the Hudson Institute outlined 17 years ago — it was only put on hold by a temporary dip in the economy. Trucking needs to find effective ways to attract many more minorities, immigrants, urbanites and others who want decent jobs but never thought about driving a truck.
In all honesty, driving a truck is a tough job and it's not for everyone. But it can also be a good one, offering a path to a respectable, responsible life. Trucking just needs to get that message to those who want that opportunity. That's where the numbers are. No lie.