One of the nation’s first collective pandemic memories is the clamor to buy and store as much toilet paper as possible. Shelves around the country were cleaned out as the supply chain struggled to keep up.
This situation last March inadvertently highlighted one of the parties responsible for getting those shelves re-stocked: the trucking industry. And as the nation dealt with this shortage, a different shortage within the industry — labor — was one of the factors contributing to a slower replenishing of toilet paper and other household items.
According to Dave Zelnio, director of marketing and communications for the Lincoln-based Nebraska Trucking Association, a labor shortage in the trucking industry has been the top concern for trucking companies for four years in a row in a national annual survey conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute.
While the shortage was clearly an issue pre-pandemic, Zelnio said, the last 18 months have been especially tough for driver recruitment and retention due to the downturn in the economy and inability to get parts for truck maintenance. The industry lost 6% — almost 100,000 jobs — of its pre-pandemic workforce during the leanest days of the pandemic, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A main factor contributing to the shortage is trucker demographics, as Zelnio said the average age of a trucker is around 45 years old; the BLS estimates that number is even higher at 55 years old.
“That’s kind of on the higher scale when it comes to a workforce, and we’re trying to work on that so we can start to bring younger people into the industry,” Zelnio said.
The Nebraska Trucking Association is under the umbrella of the American Trucking Association, according to Zelnio. The association serves Nebraska trucking companies, with duties including advocating for favorable state transportation laws, facilitating networking and hosting trucking awareness and appreciation events.
The NTA is actively trying to engage with Generation Z, conducting focus groups of high schoolers to get their perspectives on trucking. What the focus groups revealed is that the industry needs to adjust its messaging to younger demographics and raise more awareness about the benefits of joining the industry.
“They just need to hear the story,” Zelnio said. “They’re entrepreneurial. They like technology, they like community oriented type jobs. They want to be a part of a solution. So there’s a lot of good indicators that if we do it right, we can actually pull Generation Z into the workforce.”
However, the movement to shift recruiting to a younger demographic leads to problems of its own, said Ron Devall, owner of Grand Island-based Devall Trucking, a company with over 40 units in operation that travel around the 48 connected states. Younger drivers will make more mistakes, leading to potential safety issues, Devall said. And with companies more and more desperate for drivers, rigorous training protocols will sometimes be bypassed to get new drivers on the road as soon as possible.
“A lot of the large companies are pushing for younger and younger drivers,[who] are inexperienced and you end up with more wrecks, more guys jumping from job to job, and you just don’t get the stability out of the drivers because there’s so many jobs,” Devall said. “Companies start hiring more or less unqualified drivers with very limited experience and are thrown into the tough lifestyle. And they just become a commodity where they come and go.”
Another factor contributing to the shortage is the attitudinal change of what truckers are willing to commit to. In the past, long-haul truckers would be out on the road for two-to-three week stretches at a time; Devall said the older truckers are used to this system. But for new recruits, the idea of leaving one’s family for long periods of time is no longer appealing.
“It’s not even about matching wages, you got to pay probably 20 to 30% more to even entice a guy to spend the time on the road,” he said.
Zelnio said the industry is adjusting routes so drivers don’t need to be on the road for as long or too far away from home. Other strategies include hiring and retention bonuses.
But Devall said these individual efforts can only do so much.
“I don’t think it has a good answer,” Devall said. “People are trying stuff, but it’s not working when you try to combat one thing … any answer is gonna be expensive.”
This issue isn’t going away soon, Zelnio and Devall said. With the recent vaccination/testing mandate for all employers with over 100 employees, many trucking companies will lose even more drivers who refuse to get the vaccine. Though industry leaders are concerned about the direction of the shortage, Zelnio is confident the situation can be turned around by focusing on recruiting younger generations and adapting standard trucking practices.
“The typical messaging is, ‘Oh, no, the sky’s gonna fall,’” Zelnio said. “But there’s a lot of good news.”