Analysis: US truck driver scarcity to persist but ease

Analysis: US truck driver scarcity to persist but ease

Trucks travel on a US highway.

The bottom line is markets work. Trucking companies are going to find a way to source the drivers needed simply because they have no choice. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

What will the US trucking capacity situation be in five years? Will it be tighter than today, looser, or about the same? A show of hands to those questions at a panel — which was moderated by Gross Transportation Consulting president Lawrence Gross — at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals’ 2018 Edge Conference, revealed most expect further tightness come 2023.

Fundamentally, Gross doesn’t fully agree. He doesn’t expect that the conditions experienced in late 2017 and thus far in 2018 will endure, because the driver shortage is going to ease. To be clear, the shortage is not going away, but rather the acute issues will abate. A close look at the current shortage and its causes will explain why. Within the current crisis lie the changes that will help correct the problem.

Drivers have been difficult to find for many years. The demographics of the aging driver population have been a long-term concern. The lifestyle shortcomings of the job have also been well known. High driver turnover has been the norm. That was true in 2016 when capacity was looser, and it will continue to be true in the years to come.

This cycle’s difference — the electronic logging device mandate

The difference in 2017 and 2018 was that the onset of the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate created a sudden requirement for a substantial number of additional drivers to be added all at once. The demand for freight service was constant (even growing) while suddenly the average miles produced per driver per month dropped. Hence, more drivers were needed and fast. The problem was that of the capacity of the new driver pipeline. The industry was simply incapable of recruiting, vetting, qualifying, hiring, and training the requisite number of drivers fast enough to meet the need. Hence, a deficit of drivers and a capacity crunch occurred.

The shortage has brought a raft of changes, many long overdue. Driver pay has increased substantially. Beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) have embraced the changes needed to become a “shipper of choice,” many of which revolve around treating the carrier’s driver as a valuable asset and an important team player rather than a security risk. The good news is that it’s working. The trucking industry has been on a hiring blitz and drivers are successfully being added. But it is inevitably taking some time.

The bottom line is markets work. Trucking companies are going to find a way to source the drivers needed simply because they have no choice. This problem is going to be solved. Indeed, the trucking companies must be feeling more confident because they are ordering huge quantities of new tractors. While some maintain that all the new orders will be replacements for older units, Gross doesn’t think so. There is some growth built in to those figures and the carriers must have some confidence that they will be able to find the incremental personnel needed to pilot these units.

US trucking has entered a ‘new normal’ era

Importantly, things won’t return to the “old normal.” The changes that have recently occurred are integral to the continuing solution. Driver wages can’t decline and shippers can’t start treating driver hours wasted at their facilities as “someone else’s problem.” The familiar driver recruitment challenges facing the motor carriers will still be in place. It’s unlikely that sourcing drivers will be “easy” any time in the near future.

There are caveats of course. Conditions will be tighter for longer if the strong US economic growth seen in the second quarter continues. But Gross's expectation is for slower growth as higher interest rates, soaring deficits, tariffs, and slowing overseas economies take their toll. On the other hand, don’t think the economic cycle has been repealed. This economic expansion, already near record length, won’t last forever. When the downturn arrives, as it must, then any remaining tightness in the driver supply will dissipate, at least for a while.

One last thought: the current capacity crunch was triggered by the ELD mandate crimping driver productivity. A side benefit of the situation has been to shine a bright light on the shortcomings and rigidity of the federal hours-of-service (HOS) regulations, as drivers were no longer able to fudge things through incomplete compliance. In response, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has just recently wrapped up the public comment period on a raft of proposed changes to the HOS regulations, many of which have been championed by the trucking industry for years. The FMCSA’s aggressive timetable indicates that it is very serious about evaluating and possibly proposing some changes to the regulations in the near term. Depending on what it decides, the industry could possibly see the mirror image of the recent shortage, in that driver capacity could suddenly be created by the changes being considered. That might bring about a period of plentiful US capacity while the market once again makes its adjustments.

Lawrence Gross is president of Gross Transportation Consulting. Contact him at lgross@intermodalindepth.com and follow him on Twitter @intermodalist.