Low pay, grueling work fuels trucker shortage
President Joe Biden wants to recruit more veterans and women to the trucking industry amid a national shortage of drivers that is making it harder to get products onto store shelves.
In unveiling a plan on Monday to beat the bushes for more truck drivers, Mr. Biden and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg highlighted the critical role of truck drivers, especially during the pandemic when American families relied on them for deliveries of essential items like groceries and medicine.
"You can thank a truck driver for getting that to you," Buttigieg said.
The industry in 2021 was short a record 80,000 drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), a trade group. Long-haul drivers, who often face grueling routes and can be on the road for weeks at a time, are in especially short supply. According to the Transportation Department, roughly 300,000 truck drivers leave the profession every year. The COVID-19 pandemic only made the driver shortage worse because training and apprenticeship programs were either closed or limited their operations.
Nick Geale, vice president of workforce policy at ATA, said opening the industry to women, veterans and younger drivers, who are currently largely restricted from entering the profession, would help address labor challenges.
"The quality jobs are restricted to people who are 21 and older, so we lose an entire generation to construction, food service and other industries," he told CBS MoneyWatch.
Roughly 70% of freight in the U.S. is delivered by trucks. Additionally, 80% of the country is entirely dependent on trucking for daily deliveries of essential goods like food, water, toilet paper, personal protective equipment and vaccines.
"Some companies have raised pay three times in one year, and that's unheard of in the industry," Geale said. "Signing bonuses are regularly available. If you have a good record and you want to drive a truck today, you can write your own ticket. It's very much a pro-driver market right now between signing bonuses and raises across the board."
In 2020, the median pay for heavy and tractor-trailer drivers was $47,130 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Not everyone agrees there is a shortage of qualified workers. Steve Viscelli, an economic sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said there are sufficient numbers of Americans who've been trained and hold the licenses required to drive trucks — they just don't want to.
"The problem is really one of turnover and retention," he said. "We do not have a shortage of people who have already been trained to drive these trucks. The industry just has a high-turnover system."
He expects the supply-demand imbalance to resolve itself "when the economy goes into a recession and consumer spending lightens up."
Ultimately, he believes the biggest draw for entry-level drivers is better jobs that initially don't require them to be on the road for long periods of time initially.
"We have an historic opportunity to improve things for truck drivers," Viscelli said.
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