Truckers' toll Delayed deliveries, higher prices forecast as industry struggles with driver shortage
If you go into a high school classroom and ask how many people want to be truck drivers, experts say no one raises their hand. It's not as sexy of a job as it was before, one industry analyst said.
Added regulations, fewer driver hours and even fewer new drivers entering an already depleted industry are adding up to a perfect storm. The domino effect of a shortage of truck drivers is sinking in and changing the way companies do business.
"These are unprecedented times," said Bobby Harris, president and CEO of BlueGrace Logistics with offices in Itasca. "We all knew it was coming and it finally came."
"It's as bad as it's ever been" to find drivers, said Bob Costello, chief economist at the American Trucking Associations.
The truck driver shortage is expected to hit 63,000 this year, according to the association. While some companies are raising pay to lure more people into the industry, it doesn't seem to be enough for a job that often requires people to be away from home for long periods of time.
"It's a nationwide topic of conversation," said Matt Witten, carrier sales manager at AFN, a third party logistics company with offices in Niles and Chicago. "We're staring down the barrel of government regulations" at a time when the economy is picking up, Witten said.
The shortage is causing delayed deliveries and higher prices for consumers.
Nearly every item sold in America touches a truck at some point, which explains why the challenges facing the industry have special power to affect the entire economy.
Already, delivery delays are common and businesses such as Amazon, General Mills and Tyson Foods are raising prices as they pass higher transportation costs along to consumers. A Walmart executive called rising transportation costs the company's primary "headwind" on a recent call with investors.
"Companies have to rethink how their supply chains are constructed," Witten said. In the past, businesses mainly worried about their product. Today, transportation concerns are on the top of every firm's list, especially in this area as Chicago is one of the top three transportation hubs in the U.S., Witten said.
Every industry -- from food to manufacturing, banking and finance, health care, retail, and beyond -- relies on trucking to keep goods flowing on time, without damages and within a realistic budget.
Witten said when capacity gets tight, shippers often turn to third party logistics (3PL) providers to try to stay competitive as 3PLs have access to a large network of carriers and technology that can optimize shipments and provide visibility into opportunities, including better modes, lanes and routes. Technology is becoming key in this area.
In the meantime, trucking companies must be more creative than ever to attract new drivers. Increasing driver pay, tacking on signing bonuses, becoming more women-friendly, adding more perks and trucks that are more compelling are ideas included in the mix, suburban experts say.
"Tesla is putting out a new truck over the next decade," Harris said.
Technology leaders such as Elon Musk hold out driverless trucks as a solution, but industry insiders agree that is many years away.
People will always be needed in the industry, Witten says. "A truck will never be able to park itself. Humans are not going to go away in the trucking industry," he said.
And as driver pay rises quickly and diesel fuel costs tick up, shipping companies are charging higher and higher rates to move goods. It now costs more than $1.85 a mile to ship a "dry good" that doesn't require refrigeration or special accommodation, a nearly 40 percent increase from the price a year ago, according to data from DAT Solutions.
The average age of drivers right now is 58, Harris said.
As a way to increase the numbers, it was recently announced that the Trump administration is advancing a program to let some younger workers drive big trucks across state lines, signaling an openness to lowering the driving age more broadly amid a massive trucker shortage.
The federal government currently requires commercial truck drivers to be at least 21 to drive a large truck across state lines. But a Department of Transportation pilot program will soon allow some drivers as young as 18 to drive cross-country for private trucking companies. Specifically, the program would be available to some members of the National Guard and others with military experience.
Duane DeBruyne, a spokesperson for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a division of DOT, said the agency will begin implementing a pilot program later this year to allow 18- to 20-year-old drivers that have training and experience in certain military occupational specialties to operate commercial vehicles in interstate commerce.
House Republicans introduced a bill in March to lower the commercial truck driving age to 18 for anyone driving on the interstate who passes the required tests. While President Donald Trump has not announced a stance on the bill, his administration is using the pilot program and other research efforts to lay the groundwork for lowering the age.
Despite the age of the driver, companies still have obstacles to overcome, Witten said, citing the high costs for Commercial Driver's License (CDL) certifications.
The cost of obtaining a CDL -- what a person is required to receive before driving vehicles with a weight of 26,001 pounds or more -- ranges from $3,000 to $7,000, he said. The average salary for a driver ranges from $45,000 to $65,000, he said. However, a driver with experience and a clean record can make around $100,000, Harris said.
Experts say salaries in the industry have been lagging for quite some time and must catch up. Companies also increasingly struggle to find candidates who can pass a drug screening.
Aside from the industry's various challenges, many in the industry don't think the sector is doing enough to promote the benefits of driving trucks to younger generations. Employers could be going into schools to promote truck driving as a well-paid career option for students right out of high school or college, but instead a negative stigma often clouds the profession.
Will the industry improve?
Harris is optimistic. "It will change. The market always wins."
• The Washington Post contributed to this report.