America badly needs more truckers

There’s a truck-driver shortage in the U.S., and it will reach its highest level by the end of 2017.

According to a new report from the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the industry requires 50,000 more drivers by the end of this year.

“Over the next decade, the trucking industry will need to hire roughly 898,000 new drivers, or an average of nearly 90,000 per year. Replacing retiring truck drivers will be by far the largest factor, accounting for nearly half of new driver hires (49%),” according to Bob Costello, chief economist of ATA.  

With the relatively high average age of existing truck drivers — 49 — the trucking industry needs to figure out how to attract new ones.

Luring new drivers with better pay

Brian Fielkow, CEO of Houston-based trucking company Jetco Delivery, has been grappling with this question. The best way to lure in workers is, of course, paying a competitive wage. Fielkow employs 125 full-time drivers and says the average driver makes $60,000 a year, plus benefits. That’s significantly more than the industry’s median pay of $41,340.

“Compensation is critical. We have to be competitive because we’re vying for talent not only in this industry, but in industries like construction and energy,” he said. “We’re building a driver-centric company.”

Other companies are trying to boost compensation, with some offering sign-on bonuses to lure in drivers, according to the ATA. In addition to the pay, Jetco has also created a driver committee that helps make decisions along with the executives.

“Having a driver committee that’s truly involved in the governance of the company makes sure that our drivers’ voices are heard and we respond to their concerns,” he said.

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Focus on quality of life

While many recruiters and companies may try to portray a driver’s life as a liberated one on the open road, the reality doesn’t quite match that ideal.

“It’s a hard life. I have a box that I’m sleeping in most nights. I get hotels from time to time, but you’ve got to want to do it. You have to want to travel, go to a lot of places, see different things, deal with different people every day,“ an Iowa truck driver named Greg Gedenberg told CBS News in a recent interview.

These days, young workers are looking to find more work-life balance than a truck driver’s schedule allows. Fielkow said he’s at an advantage to provide that balance because he runs a regional business.

“Especially as the next generation enters this industry, you’re going to see quality of life, focus on family, and home time grow in importance. We run a business model that gets people home most nights. We also try to match drivers with the loads that work best for them. It’s a matter of knowing your team, doing the best you can,” Fielkow said.

However, he added: “I don’t think there’s one silver bullet. But I think what really needs to change is society’s treatment of drivers. They’re so often taken for granted. People complain about being behind a big truck that slows them down. They need to realize these men and women are navigating heavy traffic daily, stocking grocery stores, drug stores, everywhere we go.”

Indeed, trucks transport 70.6% of all goods that Americans consume.

“It is a noble calling. And the more I work with drivers, the more I’m convinced of it. We need to recognize that it’s not just a trucking industry problem. The shortage will affect all of us,” he said.

The tech bump?

Fielkow acknowledges that technology has opened up the doors to the kinds of professions people can pursue outside of trucking — especially driving for taxi-app companies like Lyft and Uber, which offer the huge advantage of flexibility.

Meanwhile, the promise of autonomous trucks may seem like a bad sign for truck drivers. However, Fielkow said he believes technology will ultimately enhance drivers’ livelihood.

While we’re still years away from seeing fully driverless Class 8 trucks on the highway, driver-assisted tech could lessen the driver shortage by making the job less stressful.

“The more sophisticated technology may attract younger individuals to truck driving. One could envision an environment when the longer, line-haul portion of truck freight movements are completed by autonomous trucks and local pickup and delivery routes are completed by drivers,” the ATA report noted.

Fielkow also believes that technology will change the role of the driver for the better, envisioning that a lot of the burden would be removed from drivers.

“It’s going to make the experience more enjoyable and truck drivers will become more like airline pilots. We know that planes already do a lot of the piloting. I’m seeing technology not as a way to eliminate the driver, but bring in the next generation of drivers.”

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