Among commercial trucking professionals, the electronic logging device (ELD) federal mandate and its approaching deadline — with Dec. 18, 2017, the date for so-called Final Rule Compliance — have been top of mind for a long time. According to the annual survey conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute, as recently as 2016 the ELD mandate regarding fleet telematics remained the number-one issue for those in the trucking industry.
This ranking illustrates that many in the industry have felt the weight of that deadline pressing on them, even as other surveys indicate a high number of owner-operators and fleet managers who are dragging their feet on making the required changes.
This despite the fact that he who hesitates is lost — or at least disadvantaged, where ELD implementation may be concerned.
But that deadline has receded further in truckers’ consciousness, overtaken by what has become a more pressing challenge. The ATRI survey for 2017 finds it bumped to second place, after concerns over a worsening problem: the shortage of qualified drivers.
Driver shortage: Falling behind
As those who work in this field know, a deficit in the driver pool is a difficulty of long standing. In 2012 there were approximately 20,000 driver positions left unfilled. In 2017 that number increased to 100,000, and by 2022 it stands to reach 160,000.
As the shortage approaches crisis levels — some would say it’s already there — various remedies are under consideration. There’s been a lack of wholesale endorsement for any of them.
One solution proposes a change in the federal rules. At the present, after required instruction and training an 18-year-old in any U.S. state can receive a commercial driver license. But the minimum age for interstate driving — crossing state lines at the wheel of a commercial motor vehicle — is 21. Legislative efforts to bring the interstate age requirement into line with the age for a license have gathered support from interest groups including the American Trucking Association.
If passed, this would significantly enlarge the pool of available drivers. More importantly, it would provide a career opening to recent high school graduates, making the prospect of driving a truck more attractive to those not interested in pursuing a college degree.
Criticism of this proposal generally centers on the risks in permitting teenage drivers to undertake long-range hauling. The doubters are inclined to say there are good reasons why the age requirement is set where it is. They compare it to the same three-year spread that exists between the age of majority — adult rights, including to vote — and the legal drinking age in the United States. In fact, years ago highway funding was the lever used to compel all U.S. states to raise their drinking age to the uniform 21 it is today.
Open the gates?
Another potential means of putting more driver candidates into the labor pool would be to relax the quotas on U.S. immigration. For years foreign-born truck drivers have found an occupation readily open to them, and one that provides an introduction to the American experience.
However, the current U.S. administration’s policies and segments of the public are less than enthusiastic about proposals to increase immigration. Some view that new arrivals compete with American citizens in a limited job market, meaning shortages aside, plugging this gap with imported labor is not a viable option.
Rethinking time and money
A different approach would be that fleet owners restructure the workflow to make the job more attractive. Many truck drivers and former truck drivers say that one of the least appealing aspects of the work is the distance it puts between them and their families, for days or occasionally weeks at a time. Redrawing route plans to provide for more frequent homestays is a possible solution. Telematics for fleet management can be of service in increasing route efficiency.
And as always there’s the compensation angle. Possibilities include eliminating the wage structure that provides most long-haul truckers their income and replacing it with the system applied to other nonexempt employment: payment by the hour, not the mile. This has little traction with fleet owners, placing them on the hook for the time drivers are working but their wheels aren’t in motion. (It’s not feasible for owner-operators, of course.)
The other money move is simply to raise wages, but fleet owners already feel squeezed by the rates being paid now. The 2017 Benchmark Report: U.S. Transportation Edition published by telematics system provider Teletrac Navman shows that 39 percent of organizations said that reducing operational costs was their top business goal for 2017. Clearly, for them paying these drivers more would be a step in the wrong direction.
As none of these ideas has received anything like a consensus of support, a better alternative may be to broaden the driver demographic. Men still outnumber women greatly behind the wheel, and there exist no inherent barriers to making long-haul driving an equal-opportunity position. Outreach programs to veterans and other groups seeking employment could also help to get the word out to those who may be unaware that this job market is tilted in their favor.
The driver shortage is a problem that so far has not proved amenable to a simple fix, but — as trucking and transportation are an integral part of the global economy — a resolution is inevitable.