WASHINGTON. Faced with over $ 50,000 in student debt, Michael Gary dropped out of college and took a job as a truck driver in 2012. He said it paid the bills and he could cut his expenses if he lived mostly off the truck.
But over the years, the work has strained his relationship. He was away from home for several weeks and could not prioritize his health: it took him more than three years to make an appointment with an optometrist, which he canceled all the time due to irregular working hours. He left on October 6th.
“I had no personal life other than driving a truck,” said Gary, 58, a resident of Vancouver, Washington. “I’ve had enough at last.”
Truck drivers have been in short supply for years, but the wave of retirements, coupled with simply retiring to less strenuous jobs, is exacerbating the supply chain crisis in the United States, leading to empty store shelves, holiday shoppers panic, and crowded ports. Warehouses across the country are overflowing with food, and delivery times for many items have stretched out to months, from days to weeks.
A report released last month by the American Freight Forwarders Association said the industry was short of 80,000 drivers, a record number and the association said it could double as retirement by 2030.
Supply chain problems stem from a number of factors, including an extraordinary surge in demand for goods and factory closures overseas. But the situation is compounded by a shortage of truck drivers and worsening conditions in the transport sector, making it even more difficult for consumers to get what they want, when they want it.
This phenomenon is spreading throughout the economy, weighing on growth, driving up consumer prices and lowering President Joe Biden’s approval rating. But the White House didn’t know how to respond.
Biden announced last month that major ports and private companies will begin moving around the clock to ease congestion. But early results show that freight traffic remains a major bottleneck in these efforts, increasing port delays.
The directors of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach said that, at least initially, several additional truckers showed up to take advantage of the extended hours.
Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said his port told the White House in July that about 30% of truck port meetings were not used every day, mainly due to a lack of drivers, the chassis they use to pull cargo and warehouse workers unload goods from trucks.
“Here in the port complex, with all this cargo, we need more drivers,” Seroka said.
The $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the House of Representatives last week could help reduce the deficit. The legislation includes a three-year pilot apprenticeship program that will allow commercial truck drivers as young as 18 to cross state lines. In most states, people under the age of 21 can get a commercial driver’s license, but federal regulations prohibit them from driving on interstate routes.
But industry experts said the program is unlikely to solve a momentary problem, given that it can take months to implement and the fact that many people simply don’t want to drive trucks.
Biden said last month that he would consider deploying a National Guard to reduce the shortage of truckers, although a White House spokesman said the administration was not taking action.
Mira Joshi, deputy administrator for the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Administration, said the agency has focused on making it easier to obtain a driver’s license after states cut licensing operations during the coronavirus pandemic. The agency has also increased the working hours of some drivers.
“They form the backbone of much of our supply chain,” Pete Buttigieg, secretary of transport, said of the truckers at a White House briefing on Monday. “We must respect and, in my opinion, compensate them more than we do.”
The scarcity has alarmed trucking companies, who say there aren’t enough young people to replace aging workers. Work stereotypes, isolationist lifestyles, and a younger generation’s drive for four years of higher education make it difficult to attract drivers. Transport companies have also struggled to retain workers: turnover for large carriers has reached 90%.
In response, companies have raised wages. Since the beginning of 2019, the average weekly earnings of truck drivers have increased by about 21%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, the average salary for commercial truck drivers was $ 47,130.
To pay for this increase, trucking companies are raising their rates. John Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation, said the shortage of drivers has contributed to increased costs for retailers, who are sinking to consumers and pushing up some in-store prices.
“We are seeing an increase in costs at every stage of the transport supply chain,” said Gold. “From the ocean to truck and rail, costs are rising.”
Derek J. Lesers, president and chief executive officer of Werner Enterprises in Omaha, Nebraska, which employs about 9,500 drivers, said its services cost about 15% more than pre-pandemic levels as driver salaries and equipment have grown.
The company is trying to hire about 700 truck drivers – up from 300 before the pandemic – after demand skyrocketed and the company was left with a shortage of workers due to retirement. Since the beginning of 2020, the company has increased driver compensation by about 20% and expanded the number of operating driving academies.
“I’ve been in this business for over 30 years,” Lesers said. “I definitely think this is the toughest driver market I’ve seen in my career.”
Holly McCormick, vice president of human resources for Groendyke Transport in Enida, Oklahoma, said that while the company offered an average salary of about $ 70,000 a year, fewer people were willing to stay away from home for long periods. Waiting times for cargo to be unloaded or loaded also increased during the pandemic, McCormick said, resulting in lower wages for drivers who are usually paid per mile.
According to a report by the Association of Independent Ship Owners and Operators, truck drivers are generally not paid compensation for the first two hours of waiting.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” McCormick said. “The number of people in the workforce continues to decline.”
Even with the increase in wages, some drivers have left the industry altogether. Bob Stanton, 64, quit his job as a truck driver in October 2020. After pinching a nerve in his neck and numbing some of the fingers of his left hand, his doctors said he could no longer lift objects heavier than £ 50.
Stanton, who lives in Batavia, Illinois, said he believed his severe neck and back pain was the result of nearly two decades of working as a truck driver. The irregular working hours also led to his being diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2002, he said. He now works for a company that helps truck drivers with the disorder.
Jay Wagner, 57, a truck driver who transports hazardous chemicals, is usually on the road for about three straight weeks, rarely spending time at his home in Wichita, Kansas. Wagner said he thought about leaving work every day to spend more time with his wife and grandson, but he wasn’t sure what he would do with his job if he quit.
“That was my life,” said Wagner, who has driven trucks for 27 years. “That’s what I’m doing.”
He said there are some benefits, such as freedom of movement on open roads and the $ 75,000 to $ 85,000 he earns annually.
To fill the gap, industry leaders and researchers say trucking companies need to invest more in recruiting women and people of color. According to a 2019 report from the American Truck Association, only 7% of truck drivers are women, and 40% are minorities.
Some have also called for an increase in the weight limit for trucks so that they can carry more loads, or for a permanent reduction in the age limit for drivers. A pilot program in the Infrastructure Bill aims to help attract more drivers by allowing people over the age of 18 to travel on interstate routes. But some in the industry have raised concerns about the program’s risks and say the federal government should instead focus on increasing retention rates.
“When it comes to safety, we’re looking at age — you’re not decreasing the number, you’re increasing the number,” said Todd Spencer, president of the Independent Drivers and Operators Association.
Buttigieg said the Department of Transportation has realized that it needs to be “very careful about safety” and that the program is an initial test.
Some welcomed the move as needed. Bob Costello, chief economist at the American Longshoremen’s Association, said 18-year-olds interested in trucking might not wait until they turn 21 to pursue the job and could instead get a job in the food or construction industries. While other bottlenecks in the supply chain could disappear after the pandemic, Costello said the shortage of drivers is likely to intensify.
“If we don’t address the driver shortage,” he said, “I think going into some of these stores and seeing some of the shelves that are empty could be our future.”