Trucking on: How truckers are battling historic labor shortage

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A truck parked in a Rite-Aid parking lot in Richmond, Virginia

A truck parked in a Rite-Aid parking lot in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo: Joe Dodson // VCU Capital News Serivce)

RICHMOND, Va. (VCU CNS)– From hand sanitizer and vaccines to groceries and toilet paper, truck drivers are trucking through the COVID-19 pandemic despite a historic labor shortage. 

Many industries moved workers home during the start of the pandemic, but truckers worked “to meet the needs of this country.” 

“The trucking industry has stepped up and delivered through this whole pandemic,” said Dale Bennett, who has served as president of the Virginia Trucking Association since 1989. 

The VTA is a dues-paying membership organization that supports members and lobbies the General Assembly. 

Bennett said the trucking industry is experiencing the worst labor shortage that he has ever seen. The American Trucking Association estimated that by the end of 2021 there will be a shortage of over 80,000 workers, and it will double by 2030. The exact shortage in Virginia is unclear, according to Bennett.

“That is the highest that it’s ever been,” Bennett said. “The driver shortage may be as bad as I have seen it in my time here.” 

In an October report to Congress, the American Trucking Association, or ATA, laid out eight primary reasons for the industry shortage: 

  • High retirement numbers due to an aging workforce.
  • Women account for just over 6% of the workforce.
  • Failed drug tests. 
  • Federally mandated minimum age of 21 to drive commercially across state lines.
  • Lifestyle issues, such as long hours away from home.
  • Barriers such as potential candidates inability to meet hiring standards for driving record or criminal histories.
  • Truck driver training schools trained far fewer drivers than normal in 2020.
  • Infrastructure and other issues, like a lack of truck parking spots causing drivers to stop earlier to rest for the night. Congestion also limits drivers’ ability to safely and efficiently make deliveries.

Refueling the pipeline of workers

The industry will have to recruit nearly 1 million new drivers over the next decade to replace drivers and hire needed ones due to industry growth, the ATA forecast. 

The trucking industry hauls over 70% of U.S. freight, according to the ATA. Consumer demand is high and 42% of Americans say they plan to spend $500 more this holiday season than last, according to the quarterly MassMutual Holiday Finances Consumer Spending and Saving Quarterly Index. 

The number of heavy, or CDL-licensed, tractor-trailer drivers decreased from 43,620 in May 2019 to 42,120 in May 2020 (down 3.4%) while the number of light truck drivers increased from 20,970 to 21,850 during that same time period (up 4.2%), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Pickup and delivery drivers fall into the light truck driver category.

Bennett warned that Virginia is short of the amount of heavy truck drivers needed to meet demand from consumers. 

“We’ve got a demographic problem in the industry,” Bennett said. “The average age is older than the general workforce and a lot of those folks are retiring.” 

Under federal law, a driver has to be at least 21 to drive outside of the state where they hold a commercial driver’s license. Large trucking companies in Virginia like Old Dominion Freight Line have routes reaching from Anchorage, Alaska to Miami. The inability to travel over state lines makes drivers under 21 less valuable. 

“A 19-year-old can drive a tractor-trailer from Norfolk, Virginia all the way to Bristol, Virginia,” Bennett said. “But once he gets to Bristol he cannot drive that tractor trailer over state lines into Bristol, Tennessee.” 

Truck driver demographics vcu cns
Infogram by Joe Dodson // VCU Capital News Service

Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on Nov. 5, which includes provisions for an apprenticeship pilot program that would enable drivers under 21 to drive interstate after passing the program. 

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, will invest $110 billion into roads, bridges and projects. 

Other issues driving the labor shortage

COVID-19 vaccine requirements could affect the labor force also. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued an emergency temporary standard on Nov. 4 which requires covered employers with more than 100 workers to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine or require regular testing. ATA CEO and president Chris Spears predicted in a letter released on Oct. 21 that the policy could lead to companies losing up to 37% of their drivers to retirements, attrition to smaller carriers or conversion to independent contractor owner-operators.

Age is not the only demographic where the trucking industry is an outlier. Women account for over 6% of truck drivers compared to over 47% of the general workforce, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the Census Bureau.

truck driver shortage infographic
Infogram by Joe Dodson // VCU Capital News Service

The pandemic also caused temporary shutdowns of driver training schools and the Department of Motor Vehicles, which made addressing the urgent labor shortage difficult.

Duncan Quicke, coordinator of the truck driving training school at Southside Virginia Community College in Brunswick County, said the school closed for three months at the start of the pandemic. Demand for CDL classes is now at an all time high, but it’s more difficult to schedule appointments at DMV, Quicke said. 

“Our classes prior to COVID were probably averaging seven to eight individuals per six-week period,” Quicke said. “Our class size today is probably averaging 10 to 11.”

Weak links in the supply chain

Truck companies are also feeling the impact of the supply chain issue. Companies have trouble ordering new trucks or parts to fix their fleets, Bennett said. A global microchip shortage has driven up the value of new and used cars. People are buying auto parts to keep their old vehicles running, which creates an extreme demand for parts. 

“They are cannibalizing parts off of older vehicles just to keep them running and moving freight,” Bennett said. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes a 38% increase in funding for bridges and roads. The Virginia Department of Transportation will manage the funds but a portion of funding is expected to be allocated to growing the Norfolk Harbor, according to a press release from Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th.

Long delays at ports have made getting freight delivered on time a challenge for carriers. 

“It’s called a chain for a lot of reasons, because it’s got a lot of links in it,” Bennett said. “Not all of those links are operating as efficiently as they need to be.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program cover news for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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