Add truck driver to the list of jobs Americans don’t want to do anymore. Long weeks on the road away from home and family and stagnant salaries are making it hard to recruit drivers. The average age of a commercial driver in the U.S. is 55, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and retirements in recent years have long-haul carriers worried about filling their spots. Many would-be younger drivers are instead drawn to construction and other jobs that pay more than the average $38,000 a year truckers make.
“There has been an underlying quality driver shortage for many years, but it’s been masked by the recession,” says Mike Hinz, president of the van division at Roehl Transport. Nationwide there are about 25,000 unfilled truck driving jobs, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA). That’s a manageable shortfall for now, given a still-struggling economy and lower-than-expected demand. Analysts expect freight volumes, which were flat in 2013, to rise only slightly in 2014—but that could be enough to create a need for more drivers. “As exports rise,” says Hinz, “we’ll see a driver shortage that is modest today become acute.” The U.S. government projects that 330,000 new truckers will be needed by 2020.
Federal regulations have also made a career behind the wheel less attractive. New rules have reduced the hours truckers can drive and require more breaks—so long-haul drivers paid by the mile are on the road longer without extra pay. Trucking companies are reacting by stepping up recruitment, offering signing bonuses, and reimbursing driving school tuition, which can run up to $5,000.
Some shipping companies are readying for a shortage by looking to “intermodal” transportation systems that combine trains and trucks to move products from factory to store shelf in a single container. Double-stacked rail cars can hold at least twice the amount of cargo as a standard long-haul truck. Intermodal promises to cut costs by transporting more cargo with fewer resources.
The Federal Highway Administration says intermodal transportation will become more popular as over-the-road freight networks are less able to meet demand. The ATA calculates intermodal will grow an average of 5.1 percent a year until 2018. That makes sense, says Ryan Bouchard, an analyst with Avondale Partners: “The message of less costly and more efficient movement is resonating with clients.”