In the US, unemployment is at a relative low of 5%. According to the American Trucking Association, there is a current shortage of approximately 50,000 drivers – a number which is expected to keep on rising to 175,000 by 2025 if something doesn’t change. The aging population of drivers is very real in an industry which has been – as the New York Times framed it – ‘historically reliant on older, white male drivers’.
This isn’t necessarily a racially-charged or an ageist problem. What it appears to be is a lack of successful recruitment – the industry just isn’t appealing to younger workers. Federal response to this has included the ‘Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy Act’ or the ‘DRIVE-Safe Act’. However, it’s already been reported by the team behind FORWARDER that wages for truck drivers have been stagnating for some time, and although they are now rising, they are still on average below the rate of inflation. Whilst this may not initially impact the younger workers that the industry is gunning for in the short term, we are talking about a career which has been traditionally known as taking drivers away from home for long periods of time, with high work-loads, long hours of isolation, high regulation and little perceivable career growth for the most part, and the attempted justification of wanting to recruit a workforce ‘who doesn’t require as high a salary’ isn’t a great pitch.
The pilot has also caused some discomfort within the trucker population themselves. It doesn’t take long to find a number of workers who are unconvinced by the addition of 18-21 year olds to the workforce, and some statistics appear to justify their scepticism. In the United States, the fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16-19 year-olds is nearly three times the rate for drivers ages 20 and over according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Combine this with the removal of safety restrictions, including the speed cap which was approved by the Obama administration, and we’re looking at a recipe for catastrophe. A report published by IIHS, using data which came from the Department of Transportation’s own Fatality Analysis Reporting System, showed that loaded tractor-trailers take 20-40 percent farther than cars to stop, and the discrepancy is greater on wet and slippery roads or with poorly maintained brakes. Truck driver fatigue also is a known crash risk.
These factors are compounding. A total of 3,986 people died in large truck crashes in 2016 (the last year for which reliable data is available). The number of people who died in large truck crashes was 27 percent higher in 2016 than in 2009, when it was the lowest it has been since the collection of fatal crash data began in 1975. In fact, the number of truck occupants who died was 47 percent higher than in 2009.
This is a delicate and highly complex issue, and it’s something which needs attention pretty quickly. Lowering the age of workers in order to simply be able to recruit them straight from high school doesn’t make sense as an argument, as data shows that 18-30 year olds change jobs an average of 7.8 times during this period. Despite a number of high-profile voices claiming that the automation of truck driving will cause job losses, it seems like this could be one part of the solution. But it needs to be combined with a significant pay rise and further benefits for the trucking population.
Sarah O’Connell, Senior Editor, FORWARDER magazine