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America Faces a Massive Shortage of Truck Drivers

By Motley Fool Staff - Oct 20, 2018 at 3:45PM

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The numbers are bad and might get worse.

A lot of truck driver jobs have gone unfilled, which creates problems across all areas of society. Nearly everything available for purchase spends at least some time in a truck, and a lack of drivers could force prices higher on all sorts of items.

This problem, a shortage of between 51,000 and 200,000 drivers, has been exacerbated by new laws and electronic monitoring. These rules limit how many hours drivers can work while also tracking those hours in a way that makes fudging the numbers difficult.

Nick Sciple and Dan Kline examine the issue in this segment from Industry Focus. A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on Oct. 18, 2018.

Nick Sciple: Today, we're talking about trucking. The reason this is an interesting thing to talk about is it really touches every single business in the U.S. economy. No matter what business you're in, you have to move goods from place to place. It's going to affect you. Trucks are the most common mode of transportation used to import and export goods from the United States. And it's expected to grow at a rate of 4% per year between 2015 and 2045. It's really a significant portion of our U.S. logistics, how things get from place to place. When you go to the store and buy something, more likely than not, that was brought to the store in a truck.

But what's really significant in trucking today, what we're really here to talk about, is that there's a massive trucking shortage, and that's been growing over time. Do you want to talk a little bit about the shortage and how we got there?

Dan Kline: What's really interesting about it is, trucking is a relatively good job. Average pay is somewhere in the 50s. You can make $100,000. It requires about six weeks of training, and there aren't very many jobs. You can take a six-week class that costs you a few thousand dollars, and you're immediately going to have a job that pays $50,000 or more.

The problem with it is, despite all the positives of trucking, it's also kind of a miserable life. We're having trouble as a nation talking specifically younger people into taking these jobs. That's leading to a very significant -- hundreds of thousands; the numbers vary depending on who's telling the story -- of open jobs, and that's going to push prices for everything higher.

Sciple: Exactly. We've seen various estimates. I saw announcement from FTR Transportation Intelligence as high as multiple hundreds of thousands. But then, you've also got, on the low end of the range, The American Trucking Association is estimating we're going to need about 51,000 new drivers. This is a shortage that's been growing over time, but it's become particularly worse over the past couple of years, particularly this year. We began enforcement of electronic time logging devices in April. Those are devices placed in a truck that track the time that the driver is operating a truck. We've had restrictions on truck driver times back since 2004, where we put a maximum workday in for truck drivers at 11 driving hours in a 14-hour period. That regulation was in for a long period of time, but it's become really particularly significant since this electronic tracking technology has been put in place, because there was a little bit of fudging of the numbers. Right, Dan?

Kline: There was a lot of fudging of the numbers. If you were a driver, you essentially got paid for the miles you put it in on the road and getting where you're supposed to go on time. All the rules designed to protect you were also rules that curtailed your income. So, in some ways, the electronic tracking devices protect drivers from themselves. The other challenge is, it used to be considered, driving time was the only factor. Now, wait time matters. If you're a driver and you clock in, and it's three hours for your truck to get unloaded or loaded before you go to the next place, that impacts how many hours you can drive. Basically, what it does is, we had this shadow workforce of drivers who were super productive -- working 15 hours in their 11 hours. Now that they can't do that, it creates increased demand.

Sciple: Exactly, Dan. This is one factor that's coming in, the regulatory aspect. You talked about how there's a shortage of younger people entering the trucking workforce. Part of the reason behind that is that the economy has been so great. You talked about how trucking can be a difficult job. You're away from your family; you're on the road for months, weeks at a time.

Kline: You're eating badly; there's no place to shower. There's really a lot of negatives to it aside from the pay.

Sciple: Yeah, all sorts of things. So, now, with the unemployment rate being so low, there are many opportunities out there for people to choose to work in to avoid that trucking lifestyle. We've got some regulatory influences coming in; that's really been tightening the amount that the truckers available can work. Then there's also been the broader economy, which has limited the people who even want to join that pool.

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