The Driver Deficit: Who will drive the future?

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Updated May 29, 2018

Female truck driver in the cab of semi truck

With nearly half of drivers retiring over the next decade and freight volumes continuing to climb, trucking needs to attract a more diverse workforce built for the long haul. Here’s what that might look like.

When it comes to recruiting tomorrow’s driver workforce, the industry must “look at it from a holistic standpoint,” says Phil Byrd, chief executive officer of Bulldog Hiway Express and former chairman of the American Trucking Associations. “One solution won’t solve the problem.”

Not given its size: Trucking needs 890,000 new drivers over the next decade – an average of 89,000 per year – to replace retirees and keep pace with growth, according to ATA. An aging workforce and fewer younger entrants will make meeting that challenge difficult at best, experts say.

In the long-haul segment that faces the biggest workforce struggles, drivers on average are 49 years old, 93 percent male and primarily white, and most have been driving for 20 years or more. Compare that to the overall U.S. workforce, where the median age is 42 and about half are female. At the same time, trucking is failing to bring young people into the industry: From 1994 to 2013, trucking’s share of 25- to 34-year-olds dropped by more than half.

Given that 45 percent of drivers are expected to retire in the next decade, focusing recruiting efforts on trucking’s traditional demographic will not meet the industry’s long-term needs. Operational changes, such as driver-friendly shorter hauls to meet rising e-commerce demands, and technological changes – such as automated transmissions, safety systems and autonomous trucks – likely will help the industry’s workforce woes, but they won’t fill the ever-widening gap.

To do that, the industry must attract drivers from other demographics – women, young people and minorities – and build a sustainable workforce. Unfortunately, diversification efforts to date have met with limited success.


Index showing trucker age ranges

From 1994 to 2013, trucking’s share of 25- to 34-year-olds dropped from 1.35 percent of the national workforce to 0.64 percent, while its share of 65-plus-year-olds grew from 0.7 percent to nearly 1.5 percent.

Trucking has pushed to hire more women drivers. The move’s been driven in part by the Women In Trucking association, and many fleets have focused on attracting and retaining female drivers, while truck makers have made their rigs more comfortable and flexible to accommodate drivers of most heights and builds. Those efforts have moved the needle on women’s share of the driving population from around 5 percent to 7 percent.

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Trucking has done better among African-Americans and Hispanics, at least as compared to the overall workforce. The National Minority Trucking Association says African-Americans make up 14 percent of the trucking workforce – the same as their share of the total U.S. workforce. Hispanics make up 13 percent of truckers compared to 17 percent of the total U.S. workforce.

Truck driver from Werner Enterprises

“Drivers today “have to be tech-savvy to get behind the wheel.”

– Rich Johnson, Werner Enterprises

Ethnic minorities are one of the fasting-growing segments of the driver population and perfectly poised to help ease the shortage, says Kevin Reid, NMTA founder and CEO. The key is to lure potential drivers before they pursue other careers.

Reid hits on the industry’s biggest workforce challenge: Attracting young people, regardless of race or gender, to a career whose regulations prohibit those under 21 from commercial interstate driving.

“Trucking does not tee up well for a young person out of high school,” Byrd says. Not allowing drivers under 21 to cross state lines “is a big deterrent to people entering our industry.”

It also makes for inconsistent safety policy. Byrd cites a 20-year-old Bulldog driver who can drive 360 miles on I-10 from Jacksonville, Fla., to the carrier’s largest customer in Pensacola, but that same driver can’t continue west 60 more miles on I-10 into the port of Alabama and then back to Pensacola.

Similarly, large states allow young drivers to max out their hours within the state, yet they aren’t allowed to do the same across state lines.

Various initiatives seek to rectify this situation. The DRIVE Act, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in March and supported by ATA, would allow drivers between 18 and 21 to operate across state lines as long as they meet rigorous training requirements — at least 400 hours of on-duty time and 240 hours of driving time, both with an experienced driver trainer. Training would be restricted to trucks equipped with active braking systems, video monitoring systems and speed limiters set to 65 mph or slower.

5 Reasons You Fail at Recruiting Drivers Reason 3

This follows a pilot program introduced in the 2016 highway bill that allows military-trained drivers between 18 and 21 to drive in interstate commerce. The goal was to compare the safety records of those drivers to a control group of 21-and-older drivers with similar training and experience, but recruiting a statistically significant number of young military drivers proved difficult. Legislation introduced in the House last December would expand the program to include all commercial driver’s license holders ages 18 to 21 with clean driving records who complete additional training.

Safety groups such as Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety push back hard against such measures. A poll on the AHAS website shows that 73 percent of the public opposes allowing teenage truck and bus drivers in interstate traffic.

To prep them for careers as truck drivers, seniors at Patterson High School in Patterson, Calif., can take classroom instruction and experience 20 hours on a driving simulator, followed by free behind-the-wheel training, to obtain their intrastate CDL.To prep them for careers as truck drivers, seniors at Patterson High School in Patterson, Calif., can take classroom instruction and experience 20 hours on a driving simulator, followed by free behind-the-wheel training, to obtain their intrastate CDL.

Some in trucking also question the wisdom of allowing younger drivers to cross state lines. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association sent a letter in April to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure opposing proposals to lower the age requirement, claiming they “would not only be detrimental to road safety, but also to those seeking to enter the trucking industry as professional drivers.” It also claims intrastate truck drivers under the age of 19 are four times and those 19 to 20 are six times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes.

This perspective paints with too broad a brush, some say. “I know some 19- and 20-year-olds who are more dependable and safer than people twice their age,” says Rich Johnson, associate vice president of school operations for Omaha, Neb.-based Werner Enterprises (CCJ Top 250, No. 11). “It all depends on their training.” Werner has 13 school locations that graduate more than 6,000 students per year. Around 40 percent drive for Werner upon graduation.

“I’m not saying every 18-year-old is ready for commercial motor vehicle driving, but there is a large percentage that are,” says Byrd, pointing to screening capabilities available today that weren’t possible when the age regulation was written. “I think we’ve developed psychological testing and skills testing to vet and screen drivers so we can do some due diligence to find out if they can be successful.”

Byrd points to his own company’s experience to demonstrate the safety of younger drivers. “In Charleston (S.C.), we operate 75 to 80 trucks that never leave the commercial zone, and we use young people every day in highly congested traffic patterns, and they perform very successfully,” he says. “But I can’t take that same driver and move him between Charleston and Savannah.”

If trucking is to compete effectively for labor, it has no choice but to lower the driving age, argues Don Lefeve, president and CEO of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association, which represents more than 200 truck driver training programs. “We think the age should be 18, but it must be coupled with robust training,” he says. The average CVTA student is a 34-year-old male, often on a second or third career, Lefeve says. Only 7 percent of students are women.

Because the driver age limit is a regulation, lowering it does not require legislation. “I think it’s something Congress would weigh in on, but technically the (U.S. Department of Transportation) secretary could change it,” says Lefeve, who also recognizes the political sensitivities of such a move. “I don’t think anybody wants to just change the age and turn them loose.”

Don Lefeve - CVTA

“We think the age should be 18, but it must be coupled with robust training.”

– Don Lefeve, CVTA

Instead, Lefeve points to developments that would ensure younger drivers operate at least as safely as their older counterparts. “The safety technologies deployed within the next three to five years will be tremendous,” he says, citing autonomous driving advancements.

Those same technologies also might appeal to a generation that’s grown up with smartphones and gaming, Werner’s Johnson says. With today’s trucks equipped with everything from collision mitigation to forward-facing radar, automated transmissions and electronic logging devices, “You have to be tech-savvy to get behind the wheel,” says Johnson.

However, taking advantage of a potential pool of younger drivers works only if they are aware of trucking as a career.

That’s the goal of a truck driver program established by high school teacher and former trucker David Dein. It allows seniors at Patterson High School in Patterson, Calif., to take 180 hours of classroom instruction and 20 hours on a driving simulator. After completing the program, interested students receive free behind-the-wheel training to obtain their intrastate CDL and then temporary seasonal employment hauling tomatoes for a local processor.

A similar program at Eau Claire High School in Columbia, S.C., will be offered starting in the 2018-19 school year. It’s a three-year, four-class commitment starting in the 10th grade. “The courses are designed to give students the coursework and hands-on training they would need to be able to graduate from high school and take the CDL test,” says Principal Neshunda Walters.

Both Dein and Walters say their programs help provide options to young adults looking for a stable good-paying career. “We can’t expect them to come to us and say, ‘Oh I need to be a truck driver,’ ” Dein says. “We tell everyone you have to go to college, but we had a driver come in last week who says he works five days a week and makes $120,000 a year.”

And that’s the message trucking must send to its next generation of drivers: Driving jobs don’t require a big investment in education, they are plentiful, and pay is based not on who you are but on how hard you are willing to work.

As long-time trucker and Women In Trucking member Ingrid Brown says, “The steering wheel doesn’t know the age, color or gender of the person behind the wheel.”

– Deanne Winslett, Todd Dills and Carolyn Mason contributed to this article.