Where Have All The Truck Drivers Gone?

The thing Mickey Weaver hears most from prospective truck drivers is that they want to be home every night. The second thing they want is money, but, he says, it’s funny — a lot of people are willing to sacrifice the money to be home daily. But that’s also a big ask. “I can get you money, any way you want it,” Weaver said. “If money’s all you care about and you don’t care where you’re driving or when you’re going out, I got 40 ways from Sunday to hook you up on that.”

Weaver, who’s based in Arkansas, runs We Hire Truckers and Truck Jobs 4 U, which, if you couldn’t guess from the names, recruit truck drivers to open positions. He started this work a little before the pandemic; in March 2020, hiring slowed down a bit, but last fall it began to skyrocket again. Now, there is no shortage of open jobs. “I’ve got more jobs than I’ve got drivers,” he said.

The United States is experiencing a shortage of more than 80,000 truck drivers, according to an estimate from the American Trucking Associations. The ATA also estimates that about 72 percent of America’s freight transport moves by trucks, which shows just how dependent consumers are on the drivers who deliver turkeys to stores or gas to pumps or the Christmas presents you order to your doorsteps.

This is not just an American problem. Trucks haul comparable amounts of freight in places like the European Union and China, and countries and regions around the world are experiencing driver shortages. The International Road Transport Union documented shortages in a survey of 800 transport companies in more than 20 countries. According to the survey, about 20 percent of positions went unfilled in Eurasia last year.

This is also not a new problem. Analysts and industry groups have warned of truck driver shortages for years, around the globe. But supply chain disruptions during the pandemic and surges in demand in places like the US have made this slow-rolling crisis much more acute.

The pandemic “opened up Pandora’s box on so many issues,” said Jean-Paul Rodrigue, an expert in transportation, logistics, and freight distribution at Hofstra University.

“Because of this intense pressure, the capacity has been stretched thin and then you start having delays and you have a slowdown,” he added. “All of this creates a domino effect, which makes the shortage of drivers even more salient than before.”

Why everyone seems to need more truck drivers is a bit more complicated, and it varies from country to country, where regulations and pay and labor conditions and infrastructure all influence the job. The shortage also reflects broader economic trends as, particularly in the United States, labor demand is outstripping supply.

There are always people who want to go out on the road, Weaver said. But they are pickier these days, because they can be. “There are so many jobs out there that [potential drivers] pretty much call you and say, ‘I want ABCDEFG, and if you can’t hit all of those, then I don’t want that one,’” Weaver said.

All of this comes together so that, around the world, fewer and fewer people want to be truck drivers, or stay at it long enough to replace an aging workforce. Long-haul driving, in particular, can be grueling, with lengthy wait times that aren’t compensated and other costs to being out on a route for stretches at a time. “Why do people not want to become truck drivers? That’s the situation, or the root of the issue. And the reason for that is it’s a shitty job,” said Hanno Friedrich, associate professor of freight transportation at Kühne Logistics University.

Dynamics are different around the world, but the difficulty of being a truck driver (especially in the Covid era) is universal

The first thing to know about the truck driver shortage, experts said, is that it’s not exactly a shortage. “It’s a recruitment and retention problem,” said Michael Belzer, a trucking industry expert at Wayne State University.

In the US, “there are in fact millions of truck drivers — people who have commercial driver’s licenses — who are not driving trucks and are not using those commercial driving licenses, more than we would even need,” Belzer said. “That’s because people have gotten recruited into this job, maybe paid to get trained in this job, and realize, ‘This is not for me. This is not adequate for what I’m doing.’”

When it comes to recruitment, it’s hard to get people into the business, especially young people. There’s often a gap between when people leave school (say, age 18) and when they can legally drive a truck across state lines (typically age 21), which means those folks may have already found jobs and aren’t going to be wooed away to become truckers.

There are other barriers to entry, like schooling (the costs of which can vary) and the ability to obtain a special class of driver’s license. Around the world, training and testing for truck drivers stalled because of Covid-19 lockdowns. The industry also struggles to attract women into the workforce because of safety concerns and inadequate accommodations along routes and at rest stops.

But truck driving also isn’t the job it used to be. In the United States, for example, deregulation of the industry, which accelerated in the 1980s, alongside the decline of unions, means trucker wages have been shrinking for years. But the work itself hasn’t really changed. It involves long hours, and a lot of that can be time spent uncompensated. “You could spend all day or a day and a night waiting around to get a load at a port site offloaded and loaded up, and you’re not getting paid for any of that time,” said Matthew Hockenberry, a professor at Fordham University who studies the media of global production.

This feeds not just into the recruitment problem, but also the retention problem. Truck drivers are burned out. Long-haul drivers, especially — that is, those who are moving cargo long distances or across states — typically get paid for the trips they take, and they have to go where the cargo needs to go, with little control over when and where. “The route is the route,” as Weaver put it.

Anything that comes up along the way — a flat tire, an accident, a traffic jam — could derail that process, and it’s usually up to the truck driver to figure it out. In places like the US, this also adds pressure for owner-operators (truckers who also own their vehicles) or who undertake lease-purchase agreements (paying toward eventually owning a truck). Those hiccups could limit the number of trips drivers make, and with it, their ability to pay off their truck, let alone make a living wage.

The pandemic also accelerated some of these trends. The average truck driver previously waited about 2.5 hours at warehouses, according to a 2018 figure, but closures during Covid-19 and supply chain bottlenecks have made that even more unpredictable.

Around the world, the trucking workforce is aging. In the US, the average age of a truck driver is 46, according to a 2019 report from the American Trucking Associations. Across Europe, it’s 44. In the United Kingdom, the average age of heavy-goods vehicle drivers is 53. Some of these folks are nearing retirement, and the risk of getting sick and the uncertainty and early slowdowns of the pandemic helped accelerate truck drivers’ departures from the industry.

“Think back [to] the beginning of Covid, when everything was shut down. An over-the-road truck driver couldn’t even find a place to take a bath, eat a meal, or a lot of other things, because those places were shut down,” said Martin Garsee, executive director of the National Association of Publicly Funded Truck Driving Schools. “So if you are on the bubble of trying to think about how am I going to retire, at that point, what would be your answer, if you could retire? Or if you could find another job?”

And for all the reasons outlined above, it can be a struggle to find new recruits to replace them. In the US and Europe, employers have relied on immigrant labor, but, as experts said, that doesn’t fix any of the structural issues, and creates what Belzer called “this constant race to the bottom.”

Parts of Western Europe, for example, often relied on labor from poorer European countries to fill truck driving jobs, but as those economies improved, those sources of labor became scarcer. The United Kingdom’s truck driver shortages have been exacerbated by Brexit, and the changes to immigration rules that came with it. Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered 5,000 short-term, temporary visas to some European truck drivers to ease backlogs around the holidays, but few actually took the offer. As one Polish driver told a British outlet, why come back for a few months just to “pee in a bottle on the M25?”

Other parts of the world face different challenges. Stefan Pertz, who’s based in Malaysia and runs Asian Trucker, a media company for the commercial trucking industry in Southeast Asia, told me that in Malaysia truckers make about $800 to $900 a month, a salary that can go quite far there. But, again, at what cost? Drivers are highly surveilled, sometimes only able to stop at certain rest areas. Sometimes poor infrastructure and roadways present additional hurdles. These challenges exist in other lower-income countries, compounded by another issue: You have people willing to drive trucks, but companies or businesses may not have enough vehicles. “It’s not the labor issue, it’s the asset, it’s the truck itself,” Rodrigue said.

These are longstanding challenges, and the pandemic created a kind of breaking point for the industry, even as the vital link truckers play in the economy became clearer. But the way the supply chain functions may make it harder to fix the global driver shortage.

Truck drivers and the human costs of our global supply chain

The toughness of being a truck driver — the long hours, the treks, the waiting at ports or warehouses to get the goods — isn’t an accident. It’s mostly a consequence of being caught up in the demands of the modern supply chain, the one that is under so much pressure now.

Experts told me that even as wages for truckers have declined, shipping and logistics companies are increasing their rates. But that hasn’t really trickled down to the truck drivers’ pockets. “The trucking companies fight over the scraps. And the drivers fight over the scraps left over after the trucking companies fight over it. All of this cascades down, and the most powerful party here is always the one to win,” Belzer said.

And, he added, when it came to truckers: “Because of where they stand in the power relations throughout the supply chain, they’re the least powerful people.”

Experts and those involved in the trucking industry said wages for truckers have ticked up because of the labor demand in this stage of the pandemic, just as they have in other parts of the labor market in the US. There may be good signing bonuses to be had, too. But truckers don’t have a say in the routes they drive, or how long it takes for their cargo to be offloaded at a port. The job remains difficult, and it might not be enough.

“It’s pretty simple,” said Joe Michel, executive director for the Alaska Trucking Association. “Pay them more, treat them better, they’ll stick around.” In the US, the Biden administration announced a trucker retention plan, which includes recruiting more veterans and studying working conditions to improve the industry. But those won’t transform the industry overnight, or be a quick fix to supply chain problems.

And these questions are arising as the omicron variant of the coronavirus surges, bringing an added uncertainty to the economy. But it’s also a reminder that we rely on truckers to deliver the surgical masks and the Lysol and the food to cook when we’re quarantining. They are the essential workers, and the question really is whether they are being treated as such.

During the lockdown, Pertz said, campaigns popped up everywhere describing truckers as heroes. “The minute the lockdowns were erased, all that disappeared again,” he said. “And my challenge is, well, these truck drivers are still stocking my supermarket, nothing has changed for them. Why aren’t they continuously promoted as heroes, and only in the situation of absolute dire needs?”

This article was originally published on Vox.