Worker shortages are plaguing numerous industries in 2023, but few are being hit as hard as the freight transport industry. To say there’s a shortage of truck drivers is an understatement. From long-haul, over-the-road (OTR) trucking to local delivery, the lack of available drivers is having a significant impact on freight operations and costs.

Carriers are struggling to find drivers even for regular routes, which has created headaches across the chain of custody. While attempts are being made to address the problem — through off-peak shipping and consolidated loads — there’s still a long way to go in solving the freight industry’s biggest immediate challenge.

A closer look at the driver shortage

The ongoing shortage of truck drivers has been negatively affecting supply chain costs for years. In 2019, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) reported a record-high shortage of 61,000 unfilled truck driver positions. As of 2021, this figure was closer to 80,000 according to a New York Times exposé. It’s expected to nearly double by 2030, barring an influx of new drivers behind the wheel.

What’s particularly troublesome about this shortage is it’s not limited to a specific industry sector. It affects all areas of trucking, including OTR, local, less-than-truckload (LTL), intermodal, and others. This means it impacts virtually all areas of the supply chain, regardless of where freight originates.

As driver shortages persist and grow worse, more stress and strain are put on carriers. Some carriers are being forced to turn down new business due to a lack of drivers, while others have been compelled to consolidate or merge to pool resources. These moves not only raise supply chain costs but also have downstream economic impacts.

Factors contributing to driver shortages

As driver shortages continue, many are wondering why a job with a relatively low barrier to entry is experiencing so much turmoil. The reasons are varied:

  • Demographic changes and an aging workforce: The average age of U.S. truckers is nearing 50, and there simply aren’t enough younger drivers to replace those who retire. The profession also skews heavily male — only 6.6% of truckers are women.
  • Wages and nontraditional working conditions: Drivers aren’t always compensated for the time they spend waiting for shipments or being stuck in traffic. Additionally, long hours and time away from home can make the job unappealing to younger workers.
  • Regulatory and safety compliance requirements: Hours-of-service rules and drug-testing regulations can make it difficult for carriers to find qualified drivers who meet all the requirements, worsening the driver shortage.
  • Technological advancements in transportation: Autonomous trucks are still in the early stages, and it’s unclear when they will become widely adopted. In the meantime, the trucking industry is still reliant on human drivers.

Effects of driver shortages on supply chain costs

The ongoing driver shortage is having a considerable impact on supply chain costs and will keep exacerbating economic stress until it’s resolved. Currently, carriers are forced to increase wages and offer other incentives to attract and retain drivers, resulting in higher transportation costs for shippers. Conversely, when there aren’t enough drivers to transport goods, shipments may be delayed or even canceled, causing inventory to sit in warehouses or on trucks in disparate locations. And when the inevitable rush to get those goods to a location occurs, there’s an increased risk of damage or loss, leading to more costs.

There’s no instant fix for staffing truckers. While some carriers may have success with sign-on bonuses or incentivized schedules, retaining a fleet of drivers ready to respond to crushing demand is proving difficult. Getting freight on the road and en route to its destination takes a concerted approach to ensure drivers get the support they need from dock to dock.

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