By Bob Confer, 11/16/21
This definitely isn’t the 1970s.
Back then, truck drivers were cool.
Truckers were made incredibly popular by their protests against the oil embargoes in 1973, the long-lasting CB radio craze that gained steam that decade, and the plethora of big rig movies like “Convoy”, “Smokey and the Bandit”, “High-Ballin’”, and “Breaker! Breaker!”
Young people hungered to adopt that lifestyle that many associated with freedom and being a rebel, an outsider, your own man. They went out and got their CDLs in droves.
Now, those folks aren’t so young anymore and today’s youths don’t want to drive.
The kids and teens who grew up in the ‘70s and got behind the wheel are now in their 50s and 60s. Some have retired. For others, retirement isn’t too far away – a third of all haulers are over the age of 55. To further reinforce that it’s an “old man’s” job, the average age of a trucker is my age, 46. For perspective, for restaurant workers it’s 27, 37 for retail workers, for farm workers it’s 38, and it’s 42 for teachers. The general workforce overall averages 40.
The aging out of drivers, along with lukewarm if not outright cold recruitment and retention, has led to a trucking crisis — and that’s not hyperbole.
Per the American Trucking Associations, there’s a shortage of 80,000 drivers, a huge leap from the 61,500 deficit just before the pandemic.
That’s just one of the myriad reasons why America is faced with significant supply chain issues. There’s just not enough people to move freight. It’s a lot of work being put on fewer drivers. There’s only so much they can do. Truckers are overworked, understaffed, and, for the most part, underappreciated.
To the average person, the trucker shortage has become a matter of the visual and the visceral. The backed-up ports, which can’t have shipping containers moved fast enough, really make the crisis apparent to the eyes, just as the reports of delayed or missing Christmas presents make it known to the heart.
It shouldn’t have taken the pandemic to bring this to attention. This isn’t something new.
In a 2014 column this writer shared this observation about the number of truck drivers: As their ranks continue to slip or grow at a rate far below demand, there certainly won’t be enough product on the move. Delivery times will slip. Costs will rise. The impact on the end consumer from a service and cost standpoint will be astounding. Come 2020, unless something changes drastically, the economy will be in full crisis mode in regard to the shipping of food and goods.
Well, that time has come.
It’s an issue that was destined to happen and one that was painfully magnified by the nuances of the economy created by Covid and governments’ reactions to it. The virus and government orders forced people to buy things instead of doing things while also encouraging shopping at e-retailers rather than brick-and-mortar stores. Then, they were given the means to do it, with stimulus checks and unemployment bonuses. The increased expenditures, like all, needed and continue to need to be moved on our roads, from resource to factory to retailer to consumer. The diverted retail destinations also created more movement due to individual shipments going to consumers’ homes and the warehouse centers and parcel companies that move the products to them. You can’t move more with less.
It’s obvious that the Biden Administration has been asleep at the wheel with everything that happens behind the wheel – just as Trump and Obama were before this President. The Department of Transportation has a current budget of $89 billion and 55,000 employees. The Department of Commerce has 47,000 workers and a bill of $11.5 billion. The fact that those public entities couldn’t recognize a years-long threat to the economy and national security is concerning.
It’s even more concerning that the industry itself hasn’t adjusted their practices to make the career more attractive in terms of pay and quality of life. The aforementioned DOT and DOC should be the last lines of defense; the private sector should recognize and take care of its own problems. That it didn’t is a major frustration to the drivers and those of us who need their services.
In the coming weeks, this column will discuss what can be done to alleviate the crisis — next week is about what the industry can do; in two weeks, I’ll discuss what we can do as citizens, businesses, and governments.
We as a society need to understand that truck drivers are truly essential workers. Without them, you’ve got no food, shelter, or products. They move everything you buy and the inputs that contribute to those things being grown, built, or produced.
A world without truck drivers is a world you wouldn’t want to — or be able to — live in.
Let’s make things right for them.