ATLANTA. Sounding several familiar themes during a speech here at the Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) 2018 annual meeting, Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) – of which TMC is a subsidiary – noted that while the U.S. economy is doing well, it’s strength is “revealing a lot of our weaknesses” within the industry, particularly when it comes to the truck driver shortage.
“We are suffering from both a driver and a technician shortage,” Spear explained in remarks. “Right now we are short about 50,000 drivers. If the trends continue like this, we will be short 100,000 drivers in five years and 176,000 by 2026. And, over the next decade, we will need 960,000 new employees in our industry – including drivers, technicians, dispatchers and others. This is not a small undertaking. We need to find ways to attract younger talent to our industry.”
He noted that the U.S. economy “is doing well,” which is pushing up freight rates. “the key ingredients are coming into place to create wonderful future for trucking,” Spear said. “And demand on trucking is only going to grow as we move to support a robust and growing economy.”
He noted that the industry now carriers roughly 71% of all U.S. domestic freight, employs 7.4 million workers in total (some 3.5 million of them drivers) or roughly one out of every 16 American workers. “And ‘truck driver’ is the top job in 29 states,” Spear added.
Yet a variety of policy issues are helping hold the industry back, particularly restrictions on allowing truck drivers under age 21 from operating commercial vehicles interstate. “We send our 18 year olds off to fight our wars; they already operate multi-million dollar pieces of equipment,” he stressed. “This policy has to be addressed.”
Spear also took aim at the media for “over-hyping” autonomous vehicle technology, particularly as to how it may impact trucking’s ability to recruit new workers.
“I have to fault the media for blowing autonomous vehicles out of proportion. Level 5 systems with no driver, no steering wheel, and no gas pedal are not coming tomorrow,” he said. “We need to be realistic; we want to encourage innovation, not blow it out of proportion. Because the hype may be driving people away from working in this industry. Why become a truck driver if vehicles are all going to drive themselves? The truth is we’re going to need drivers; to operate vehicles in our congested cities, to pickup and deliver goods to the customer’s door.”
Spear also returned to issue of infrastructure funding, which he believes will become only more critical to trucking in the near future. “If we don’t take our seat at the table in this discussion, our roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate at a furious pace,” he said. “Good infrastructure is good policy. But we are woefully behind the curve.”
Spear noted he will be returning to Capitol Hill to “yet again” advocate for ATA’s proposed “Build American Fund,” which calls for a 20-cent hike in fuel taxes to be applied at the rack over a four-year period – increasing fuel taxes five cents per year for four years.
“This will shore up the Highway Trust Fund and cost only a penny on the dollar to administer,” he said. “It would generate $340 billion for our roads and bridges over 10 years; that is real money.”