The American Trucking Associations currently estimates a driver shortage of over 80,000. And there’s little to no relief in sight. According to that same report, the driver shortage is set to grow to more than 160,000 by 2030.
There are technological solutions that can help fleet managers find and retain drivers. They’re just not the ones most people expect.
Before looking at a solution, it’s important to understand the complexities of the problem.
Why is there a driver shortage?
Unfortunately, there is a combination of both long-standing and new conditions that combine to create the driver shortage.
Increases in freight tonnage
Even if the industry could keep a steady number of drivers, there would still be a shortage because of the overall increases in freight. Although there have been dips, over the last two decades, we’ve seen a steady overall increase in freight tonnage, and the numbers are expected to climb another 30% over the next decade.
The result is a widening gap between how many drivers we need and how many we actually have. By 2016, the shortage was already over 36,000. Experts now project a gap of more than 160,000 by 2030.
Shifts in demographics
As demand has grown, the pool of drivers has shrunk, and a lot of that is because drivers are retiring. As the Baby Boomers age out of the industry, there just aren’t enough people to replace them. On some levels, it’s nothing more than simple math. The generations that followed the Baby Boomers have been smaller, so in absolute numbers there are fewer people to take those jobs.
Moves away from driving
But at the same time, in many ways it is a question of culture. It’s not just the number of people who could be drivers. It’s also the number of people who want to be. And over time, the appeal of the open road has waned. For the same money and benefits, people feel they can find work that does not take them away from their families and does not involve the same level of risk.
Remember, this is related to people’s perceptions of the industry, and those are not always based on hard facts. So, although recent research suggests librarians have higher rates of divorce than truck drivers, the industry is having trouble attracting new talent because many people worry the long hours away from home are tough on marriages.
What are the solutions to the driver shortage?
Because there are multiple causes for the driver shortage, there needs to be a combination of solutions. And because the size of the problem is so large, those solutions need to come from all industry stakeholders, from various levels of government all the way to fleet managers.
Changing regulations and investing in programs
The federal government has responded to the shortage by making more people eligible to drive, including everything from the completely non-controversial efforts to tackle the backlog of license applications caused by the pandemic to the highly controversial decision to allow 18-year-olds to drive semi-trucks across state lines.
The new program opens up opportunities for interstate routes but comes with many restrictions. The young drivers must be directly supervised by another driver with at least five years of experience and two years of ticket- and accident-free driving. And when the drivers are participating in the program, their trucks need to be fitted with specific safety technologies.
But those opposed to the program point to statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that show a 500% increase in crashes for truck drivers under 18 compared to truck drivers overall.
Completely separate from this one program, in general it is important for government at all levels to find and fund programs that help lower barriers to entry and advancement in the industry.
Moving to autonomous vehicles
This one sort of seems like the perfect solution. Instead of thinking you don’t have enough drivers, decide that the real problem is that you need drivers at all. Once you get the fleet to drive itself, there’s no more driver shortage.
Although there have been serious strides in the development of autonomous vehicles, it’s important to remember that a truly, fully self-driving fleet is still likely a long way off. If you look more closely at many of the new developments, in fact, what you find are technologies that help drivers, not replace them.
Remember, there are six levels of autonomous vehicles, and only at the sixth level can you trust the vehicle to be out on the road alone. For the other five, you still need a driver. At the lower levels, the vehicle can notice potential problems and signal the driver to make adjustments. For example, lane assist technology. But even at higher levels, you still need a driver there to supervise.
A quick way to understand how important drivers are and will remain is to look at subways and trains. There, you have a set route and a dedicated track. Subways and trains don’t even have to worry about sharing lanes with other vehicles. But they still have conductors. Someone needs to be there to supervise.
Adjusting pay and improving culture and conditions
Fleet managers need to think about ways to not only get people to enter the industry but also, once they do, stay at their organizations. Currently, the industry has a high turnover rates. At larger fleets, it hovers around 90%, while smaller fleets see rates of around 70%.
Although driver pay has been increasing, it’s obviously not been enough to attract new drivers or retain experienced ones. But it’s possible that it’s not so much the amount as it is the way it’s calculated. When truck drivers are paid by mileage, they’re penalized for things completely out of their control, like bad traffic and breakdowns. Switching to different pay structures could help drivers feel they’re being more fairly compensated for their time and effort.
Another quality-of-life issue is the long stretches away from home. Local drivers tend to get to eat dinner at home, while long-haul drivers might not see their families for anywhere between one to three weeks. Although this could take a bite out of their efficiency, some fleets could consider breaking long routes up between drivers. Instead of having one driver go from Point A to Point B, one driver goes to Point A.5, where another driver takes over, making the last leg to Point B. Because both drivers drive a shorter route, it’s easier for them to make it home more often.
How does fleet management software help with driver management and retention?
Although many are focused on future solutions like self-driving cars, there are ways fleet managers can use current technology to help attract and retain drivers. With the right fleet management software—technology fleet managers can implement today—they can make working in the industry better not only for drivers but also themselves.
First, fleet management software makes it easier to get through all the required paperwork. For example, paper-based driver vehicle inspection reports (DVIRs) can be a time-consuming, tedious process that stretches out the average day for drivers. Before and after they get in their maximum time behind the wheel, they’re stuck walking around their vehicles with paper and pen.
By switching to digital DVIRs, fleet managers help drivers by making the whole process faster and easier, freeing up extra time every day, with the added benefit that you now get all the information from the report in real time.
The right fleet management solution also helps streamline all your preventive maintenance programs, helping you find and fix small issues before they have a chance to develop into major repairs that leave your drivers stranded by the side of the road. With better reliability, there’s overall less frustration. Drivers know they can make it home to be with their families. They’re not worried about wasting time waiting for a tow truck.
To find out how fleet maintenance management software can support your goals, schedule a demo of ManagerPlus Lightning today.
The first step to solving the driver shortage is understanding why it’s happening. On some levels, it’s simple demographics. The Baby Boomers are retiring and the generations after them are smaller, leading to smaller pools of potential drivers. But on others, there are long-standing issues that discourage people from entering or staying in the industry. Because the problem has different sources, it likely requires a combination of solutions from all industry stakeholders. The government has been promoting programs to attract and retain drivers, but some of them are controversial. For example, recent changes will see younger drivers now able to cross state lines. In terms of technological solutions, some are more likely to succeed than others. Although the idea of self-driving vehicles is attractive, for the near future, it’s also unlikely. But there is currently available software solutions that fleet managers can implement today to improve working conditions for both drivers and themselves. Digital mobile fleet management software solutions streamline paperwork for drivers, giving them back precious time every day, while managers get better data sooner. Also, because the software helps set up and schedule preventive maintenance programs, drivers know they’re not going to be stuck wasting time away from their families, sitting by the side of the road waiting for the tow truck. Instead, they’re able to complete their routes efficiently before heading home.