Truck driver shortage aggravated by pandemic

May 14—An aging workforce, demanding and unsafe work, a less than competitive pay scale, and the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are making it increasingly difficult for the trucking industry to find and retain qualified drivers.

The shortfall was first documented in a 2005 report by the American Trucking Association, which estimated a shortage of roughly 20,000. The driver market continued to tighten and the shortage skyrocketed to roughly 50,700 by 2017. The Association predicts a combination of a tight labor market and an aging truck driver population is expected to keep the shortage near its peak.

The average age of the existing workforce plays a major role. According to surveys by American Trucking Association, nearly 57% of all commercial truck drivers are over 45, and 23% are over 55. In other words, nearly a quarter of the current trucking workforce will hit retirement age in the next 10 years, not including the nearly 8% of truckers who are currently working above retirement age.

"As a nation, 65% of baby boomers decided to go ahead and retire when the pandemic hit," said Emily Morris, logistics manager at Morris Trucking in Terre Haute. "It wasn't really industry-specific, but across the board, people who were on the verge of retiring decided to retire early and ride it out until their Social Security benefits kicked in."

Conditions drivers face on the road contribute to difficulties of the job, a problem that became especially evident when coping with the pandemic.

Drivers "were being applauded as national heroes and essential workers during the height of the pandemic," Morris said.

"But evidence is to the contrary because they had no place to shower or use the restroom and restaurants were closed to dine-in patrons. You can't simply drive a tractor trailer through the drive-through windows."

Often times, drivers would arrive at loading docks only to be forced to leave because the business had closed its doors and there wasn't any available personnel to notify the drivers, Morris said.

"The pandemic caused a fundamental shift in American mentality," Morris said. "We've forgotten about the absolute importance of the delicate supply chain."

Age also plays a role in contributing to the shortage of drivers. The Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association limits the minimum age requirement to 21 to drive a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce and 18 for intrastate.

Although there to protect all motorists, the age restriction makes it difficult to attract people to the profession, said Cathy Davenport, president of PJ Trucking in Terre Haute.

"We can't hire an 18-year-old who's just graduated high school [to transport across state lines] and they can't sit around at home waiting to turn of age," Davenport said. "They need a vocation where they can earn money right away, like in a welding career."

Wages also make hiring difficult. According to a recent Centerline study, 76% of truckers say competitive pay is the top factor in their decision to take a job; yet one in two say current wages are not competitive.

Bob Patterson, a 34-year veteran driver with XPO Logistics' Terre Haute terminal, who also trains new drivers, said a lot of trucking companies are notorious for paying drivers a ridiculously low wage, "like maybe only 22 or 32 cents per mile," and sends them out on the road for up to a month at a time.

Patterson started driving in 1983. His father and uncle were truck drivers before him and that's why he and his cousins started driving. Although he used to make long-haul transports across the nation, now he drives what he calls a "meet and turn" route which takes him only 250 miles from home. He said he couldn't drive anymore if he still had to make those long routes and be gone from home weeks at a time.

"I just thank God that I'm home every night and the pay scale is good," Patterson said. "But every time I leave for work, I tell my wife that I hope I make it home. It was just last week that I heard on the news about a driver who shot and killed another driver at a truck stop because the one driver was holding up the fuel lanes and refused to move while he was on break."

According to the Centerline study, 50% of commercial long-haul drivers do not feel safe on the road. Trucking was the sixth most dangerous occupation group in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Patterson said he drives the speed limit, but he gets passed like he's standing still. He said drivers aren't courteous and it doesn't matter if they're driving two wheels or 18, they're in a hurry and usually on their cell phones. He said electronic log books intensify the pressure to be on time.

Another factor in the continuing shortage, Patterson said, is that many drivers are coming away from training courses with a lot of book knowledge but not a lot of hands-on experience. He said new trucks are equipped with automatic transmissions and a lot of onboard digital technology, but most seasoned drivers are used to manual transmissions with anywhere from eight to 18 speeds.

"I want to be in control of what gear I'm in when I'm driving down a snow-packed road and the automatic transmissions don't allow that kind of control," he said. "A lot of drivers don't even know how to back under a trailer to hook up their king pins [to secure the trailer to the cab]."

That's a problem being addressed by Conexus Indiana and Ivy Tech Community College. They teamed up to launch the nation's first training program for commercial truck drivers that is covered by federal student loans and enhances a graduate's employability. It can be completed in three weeks with 160 hours of training, which prepares students to become a Class A Commercial Drivers License holder. The program groups four students and includes 121 hours of operating observation, 30 hours of behind-the-wheel skill development, an eight-week internship and an overview of logistics and transportation.

Sarah Seaton, CDL program manager at the Ivy Tech Terre Haute campus, said students' ages range from 18 up to mid-60s with the majority in their late-20s to mid-30s. She said the campus enrolls about 50 students per year and that women regularly enroll in the course.

"There has been a driver shortage for several years, but given a global pandemic, this problem is only magnified," Seaton said. "There are inefficiencies in logistical facilities that cause excessive wait times for many truck drivers sitting at docks and that leads to less 'on-the-road' time. Another contributing factor is that many companies are seeking employees now and there just aren't enough workers available."

"It seems that everywhere you drive, you see signs out at businesses that are trying to hire employees," said Heather Hires, supervisor at PJ Trucking. "So we've increased our pay rate and added an IRA [retirement package] to help attract more drivers. We really need 10 more to meet the demand of our customers.

Many carriers, despite being short on drivers, are highly selective in hiring because they have made safety and professionalism high priorities. According to the Indiana Career Connect website, the average salary for truck driver jobs in Terre Haute is $51,590 with 108 job openings as of April 14.

Michele Lawson can be reached 812-231-4232 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarMichele.