The holiday season has officially begun, with America's truck drivers navigating "the worst supply chain crisis since World War II," operating across the nation's crumbling infrastructure, and sharing the roadways with up to 4 million more passenger vehicles this Thanksgiving week compared to 2020.
American Trucking Associations reports there is now a shortage of 80,000 drivers, with truckers on the road today feeling the burden of increasing demand for freight, pandemic-related challenges, early retirements, and so on, Bob Costello, ATA's chief economist, has pointed out. Others in the industry—mainly independent truck drivers—debunk the idea of a nationwide truck driver shortage and believe that the industry has a retention problem instead.
Either way you look at it, the entire nation is dealing with a labor shortage that needs to be addressed. Many workers in the U.S. are fed up with poor working conditions. If the Great Resignation of 2021 has taught us anything, it's that burnout is real and must be taken seriously by all employers. Burnout is even more of a drag on the men and women who make a substantial contribution to the nation's economy, while at times, dealing with lonely and isolated conditions.
What drivers want
The National Transportation Institute recently published a blog on "Five Things Drivers Wish the World Knew." After 26 years in business and "thousands of hours" spent talking to truck drivers and motor carriers, NTI shared some of the following insights in a Nov. 16 post:
Treat drivers with respect: "Long-haul trucking is one of the most in-demand professions in the country right now, but all too often, drivers are treated like pests. Often, they are subjected to limited parking or even denied access to bathrooms."
They are team members: "And they want to be treated as such by their employer. That means incentives to grow with the company via articulated career path, good pay, and benefits regularly explained to them."
Don't micromanage them: "To a driver, micromanaging so many details of their work is the opposite of respect."
The world looks different through a woman's eyes: "Trucking affords the same independence and financial opportunity to women as it does to men … But issues of safety and hygiene look a little different in this male-dominated industry."
They want their loved ones along for the ride: Whether a husband and wife team up or a driver doesn't want to leave their pet or child behind for long periods, NTI reports that sometimes truckers just want company on the road.
Infrastructure also has an impact
When it comes to driver retention, the federal government has a major role to play. For her closing keynote during the Women In Trucking Association's Accelerate! Virtual Conference, Meera Joshi, FMCSA's acting administrator, emphasized the importance of creating a safe workplace for women within the trucking industry. Joshi also pointed to the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which President Biden signed into law on Nov. 15.
The infrastructure bill reauthorizes surface transportation programs through 2026, replacing the Obama-era FAST Act. The bill also sets aside up to $1 billion per year for special projects, awarded regionally through U.S. Department of Transportation grants.
Roughly half of the $1.2 trillion legislation includes new spending, representing the most significant infrastructure investment since the Interstate Highway System was launched in 1956.
This is a win not only for trucking but for all industries and overall economic growth. Many trucking associations should be lauded for helping push forward what's good in this bill for the industry—as well as what was left out.
See also: A breakdown of costs and what the bill means for trucking.
"Across the U.S., millions of miles of decaying roads cause more than a shaky drive," Joshi said. "They snarl traffic, cause delays, cost professional drivers millions of dollars and by some accounts more than $74 billion per year."
In addition to repairing bridges and highways and port upgrades, Joshi noted that the bill recognizes the need to build truck driving capacity through recruitment and retention. The bill also requires FMCSA to conduct a study of truck driver compensation, including unpaid detention time.
The new law also includes programs to help recruit more women, minorities, and younger drivers into the industry. The bill creates a Women of Trucking Advisory Board and a pilot program that would permit drivers younger than 21 to be part of apprenticeship programs allowing them to operate in interstate commerce, which is currently against federal regulations.
"Drivers are losing several hours every day to congestion, loading and unloading, and looking for parking," Joshi said. "Through insight from ELD data, we can more accurately and granularly size this growing concern and take steps to align financial incentives across the supply chain, so that drivers don't bear the financial brunt of unnecessary delay."
Joshi added that a separate but related provision in IIJA requires FMCSA to work with the U.S. Labor Department to establish a truck leasing task force. That group would review and provide recommendations on the impact of inequitable leasing arrangements and identify resources to help drivers before they enter into lease agreements and assist when a driver is in a leasing agreement that is no longer financially tenable.
At the end of the day, the infrastructure bill is great news for a nation in constant battle with itself and a good sign heading into 2022. This spending will clearly impact the trucking industry, which employs more than 8 million Americans and moves more than 70% of the country's freight.
Ultimately, however, the entire industry and the public must work to make life better for the more than 3.5 million truck drivers who move that freight every day. They need our continued appreciation and support now more than ever.
Happy Thanksgiving, and remember, if you bought it, a truck brought it.