TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Loaded up and ready to roll, long-haul trucker Felisa Griffith climbed into the cab of her rig on a cold and icy February morning.
Beside her in the cab as she waved “so long” was the only traveling companion she cares to have — her 6-month old Corgi pup named Sam.
“Most truck drivers are loners,” she said.
It gets lonely sometimes, she said. But for the most part, the lifestyle suits her just fine.
She averages 3,000 miles per week across the Pacific Northwest hauling household goods, commodities, raw manufacturing materials and other supplies and goods.
Eight years ago, Griffith traded in a career as a payroll clerk and bookkeeper for the open road, and she’s never looked back. Trucking has given her the opportunity to see the country, the main reason she loves the job.
“And it’s kind of a power trip to be up there in the cab of a truck, and you don’t have to deal with office drama,” she said.
Griffith is one of a limited number of long-haul truckers criss-crossing the nation hauling loads that range from cattle to cantaloupes and from yogurt to canned goods. And the tight labor pool for those truckers will only get worse. The trucking industry estimates it will be short more than 170,000 long-haul drivers within the next seven years because of a wave of retirements, growing freight demand, stricter drive-time rules and recruitment challenges.
No easy job
In addition to bad weather and rude drivers, truckers also have to contend with congestion and road closures, and there’s an incredible amount of logistics involved, Kelly Bangerter, safety manager at Sunrise Express’ Twin Falls terminal, said.
In addition to having to know their way around ports and terminals, they must plan a trip to meet delivery times and adhere to safety regulations that restrict driving time. Weather, traffic and road construction all play into that, he said.
“They are making decisions daily. Good drivers are constantly doing calculations and in the back of their minds racing the clock. It’s tough for them,” he said. “It’s a juggling act.”
In addition to that stress, there are the long hours, days and even weeks on the road.
“It’s a lonely lifestyle out there by yourself,” he said.
The biggest issue is mentally being able to push through the “mind-numbingness” of that isolation, he said.
It’s also hard on spouses and families and can take a toll. Younger workers don’t see it as the quality of life they want, he said.
“The younger generation isn’t looking at trucking as a career,” he said.
The American Trucking Association has long called attention to the shortage of truck drivers, primarily long-haul drivers.
The ATA first documented the issue in 2005 when the shortage stood at 20,000 drivers, Bob Costello, the association’s chief economist and senior vice president, said.
“It (the shortage) went away with the recession. Now it’s back with a vengeance,” he said.
The recession that started in 2008 shrank freight volumes so fewer drivers were needed. Once the economy recovered, the shortage skyrocketed to 45,000 drivers by 2015.
ATA hasn’t calculated the latest numbers, but the forecasted shortage for 2018 was 60,000 drivers, he said.
“At the core, it’s a demographics issue, an age issue,” he said.
The average age of a new driver in training is 30. That’s because the age requirement for interstate truck drivers is 21, meaning the industry misses out on the population between 18 and 21, he said.
Those who don’t go on to college or join the military “don’t just sit around twiddling their thumbs. They go into retail, fast food or construction,” he said.
After working in those areas for a while, some might be looking for higher pay or benefits and consider trucking, he said.
“By the time they come to us, they’re 30 years old,” he said.
In addition to missing younger workers, there’s a gender issue. Only 6 percent of all truck drivers are female, while the total U.S. workforce is 47 percent women. The industry needs to do a better job of making trucking more attractive to females, he said.
Attracting more drivers isn’t just about raising wages. When there’s a shortage of anything, the price goes up, and driver wages continue to rise, he said.
“If this was only about pay, it would be easy to solve. It’s more than that,” he said.
In addition to demographics, driver shortages can be attributed to the demanding lifestyle and driver treatment along the supply chain.
“Companies are getting the message,” he said.
They’re doing a better job of reducing the length of the haul and providing more time at home. And shippers and receivers are reducing wait times for drivers, who typically incurred extended wait times, he said.
Driver shortages are also a result of more attractive job alternatives and are exacerbated by regulations such as restricted drive times that reduce industry productivity, requiring more trucks and drivers.
Independent Meat — a fifth-generation, family-owned business in Twin Falls — has a small fleet of trucks, delivering its pork products in Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Montana. But it uses other carriers to deliver 60 percent of its production to distributors in Washington, Oregon and California, Kenny Stagmeyer, the company’s logistics manager, said.
“We’ve been fortunate that the carriers we do use have been able to take care of most of our needs,” he said.
But the driver shortage is affecting all companies, whether they have two trucks or 200. Every company has equipment sitting idle in the yard, he said.
“There’s not a trucking company out there that’s not hiring drivers (and) it’s hard to find good quality drivers,” he said.
The ones with experience are staying with their companies, and those companies are paying to keep them. Other drivers may barely have a year of over-the-road experience. Companies are moving to in-house training and offering sign-on bonuses more than ever before, he said.
“It’s hard to find guys that want to work. Everybody’s trying to attract drivers; it’s nationwide,” he said.
In addition to the lifestyle, the federal government made life more difficult for companies when it mandated electronic logging devices that track a trucker’s every minute and movement, he said.
The ELD rules limit truckers to 11 hours of drive time and 14 consecutive hours of on-duty time in a 24-hour period before they have to pull off the road for 10 hours before driving again.
The rules make no allowances for weather delays or time waiting at docks and tied the hands of a lot of companies, he said.
In those instances, the driver is still on the clock. If he’s paid by the mile — and a lot are — it cuts into his time and into his pay, he said.
“The driver situation has been ongoing now for five or six years, but it’s really started to hit home,” he said.
Backed-up trucks cause a domino effect that affects everyone from start to finish, he said.
While truckers do have to pass routine physicals required by the Department of Transportation, there is no maximum age limit that kicks them out of the cab.
But with a median age of 49 for long-haul drivers in 2017, the truck driver shortage will be amplified by a growing number of retiring drivers as well as by industry expansion.
The trucking industry will need more than 897,500 new drivers over the next decade, nearly 90,000 per year on average, Costello said in his 2017 analysis.
Retirement accounts for 49 percent of future needs, and industry growth accounts for at least 28 percent through 2026. If nothing changes in the trend line, the driver shortage could surpass 174,000 by 2026.
Because trucks account for nearly 71 percent of all freight tonnage moved in the U.S., it is highly unlikely the driver shortage could be reduced significantly by shifting to other modes of transportation such as rail, he said.
“If the trend stays on course, there will likely be severe supply chain disruptions resulting in significant shipping delays, higher inventory carrying costs and perhaps shortages at stores,” he said in the report.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in its September 2018 working paper titled “Is the U.S. Labor Market for Truck Drivers Broken?” countered that nothing in the available evidence suggests there will be an actual shortage of drivers that will bring about Costello’s scenario.
That report noted a tight labor market for the industry since 2003 but also found that no special constraints prevent entry into the occupation and no reason the driver supply should fail to respond to higher price signals.
It did note, however, that drivers in the long-distance trucking sector were not addressed in its analysis.
That’s exactly the sector ATA is focused on. The BLS report is looking at the broader industry, where there’s no shortage of local drivers. Of the roughly 3.5 million truck drivers today, the ATA is concerned about the 500,000 to 600,000 long-haul tractor-trailer drivers, he said.
While the American Transportation Research Institute, a not-for-profit research organization, doesn’t track quantitative data on driver shortages, it has studied the issue at least since the early 1990s, Rebecca Brewster, ATRI president, said.
“Certainly over the years it’s been a bigger or lesser issue, depending on the economy,” she said.
For example, it wasn’t a top industry issue during the recession because there was less demand for freight and consequently less demand for drivers, she said.
But a driver shortage was the top-ranked issue in ATRI’s annual Top Industry Issues report in 2017 and 2018 and has been a top-three issue in 12 of the 14 years ATRI has conducted the survey.
Part of the driver shortage is related to increased freight demand due to the economy, a growing population and the increase in e-commerce — where customers order online and want the product today, she said.
“That is certainly driving up the need for additional truck transportation,” she said.
But the shortage is also due to drivers retiring and the lack of success in recruiting younger workers to fill those spots, she said.
One of the challenges is the lack of vocational-technical education at the high school level that would let youths know about career opportunities in trucking.
One response by employers to address the shortage has been to increase wages. They’ve also added bonuses for such things as signing on, safe driving performance and on-time delivery.
And they’ve added benefits, such as health insurance, retirement plans and financial assistance for training, she said.
Driver wages, paid either by the mile or hourly, and bonuses have steadily increased over the last several years, according to ATRI.
From 2012 to 2017, wages across the industry rose from an average of 41.7 cents per mile to 55.7 cents per mile and from $16.67 to $21.97 an hour.
Benefits also rose, from 11.6 cents per mile to 17.2 cents per mile and $4.64 per hour to $6.78 per hour.
Bonuses in 2017 averaged $2,542 for on-time delivery, $1,401 for signing on, $1,317 for safety and $974 for retention.
The median annual wage for heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers in 2017 was $21.16 hourly and $44,020 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, an internet job search for long-haul drivers revealed many employers offering significantly higher wages, bonuses and salaries.
The industry is also addressing the lifestyle issue and the long stretches of time away from home, giving drivers more time at home or routes closer to home so they can be home more often. Some have set up hub-and-spoke systems or established team operations that can go farther for less total time away, she said.
Other strategies the industry is looking at include recruiting more women and military veterans and reducing to 18 the age for an interstate CDL in concert with safety assessments of those younger drivers and on-the-job-training.
Strategies also include expanding apprenticeships and other workforce-development programs through the Department of Transportation and the Department of Labor.
Room to grow
At Sunrise Express, Bangerter said his company is concerned about the driver shortage.
The company owns 194 trucks and 600 trailers and employs 190 drivers. Some 25 others are owner/operators, who are paid to haul goods for the company using their own trucks.
“We’re constantly looking for drivers,” he said.
The Twin Falls terminal runs 50 trucks, and Bangerter would like to bump that to 75 to 100 trucks. But he’s found it difficult to get beyond 60 trucks due to a shortage of experienced, high-quality drivers.
“Without these drivers, we can’t grow,” he said.