The demographics of the trucking industry, combined with concerns over compensation of company drivers and owner-operators as well as lifestyle issues are creating the conditions for a severe shortage of professional truck drivers in North America. Indeed, even with the modest growth in economic activity that we have seen over the past few quarters, the shortage is already being felt in certain markets and capacity is tightening. With forecasts mainly pointing towards further growth in 2011, this trend is expected to broaden and deepen across the industry. There is no doubt that the trucking industry in both Canada and the United States is facing a long-term and chronic driver shortage. The demographics of the industry on their own, guarantee this. While all industries have concerns over a shortage of qualified workers and will be increasing their efforts to attract and retain workers, the situation in trucking is particularly challenging.
The Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council has done some useful research in this area and I borrow from it heavily. The demographic factors underlying the looming driver shortage are: (1) A rapidly aging workforce; (2) Competition for labour from other sectors which compete with trucking for workers (notably construction); (3) Fewer people with the educational profile of most of today’s truck drivers; and (4) The gender imbalance that exists in the driver pool.
The largest single category of active truck drivers in Canada — 35% of the current driver population — is currently between the age of 45 to 54 years old. Almost a quarter of the drivers are more than 55 years old and 60% are over 45 years of age. This is an older demographic than virtually all other occupations. Moreover, the trucking industry’s share of younger workers (20-24 years old) is much lower than all other occupations. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this is heading.
The occupations from which the trucking industry previously used to recruit many of its drivers is also drying up. Hiring “boys off the farm”, or from the military, long ago deteriorated. Today, construction is the major sector that truck drivers had previously worked in — mainly as heavy equipment operators, tradesmen, helpers and labourers. However, the construction industry is also short of workers and will be competing with trucking and other sectors for future labour. And, when the construction is strong, many drivers leave and go back to construction for better paying jobs and more reasonable, steady hours.
When it comes to the educational attainment of truck drivers — the single largest group of current drivers (almost 40%) have less than or some high school. There will be fewer of these workers in the future as young people increasingly seek a higher level of education in order to get better paying jobs.
While more women are driving a truck now than ever before, they still only make up less than 4% of the total number of drivers. Many of those would be in team operations, often with their spouses.
The moral of the story is that the industry is not going to be able to rely upon its traditional sources of labour in the future. Tomorrow’s truck drivers are going to have to be better trained and have achieved higher educational levels in order to cope with all the new technologies being installed on trucks to improve productivity, efficiency and safety. They will not be the same as their parents or grandparents in terms of expectations for job satisfaction, compensation, and lifestyle. Immigration is not a ready source of new drivers, even though there appears to be many experienced foreign drivers who would love to come to Canada. One of the key problems is that truck driving is not considered a skilled occupation by immigration officials and it is hard to make the case that it is a skilled occupation with the kind of average education levels and pay scales that people in the job have. Women are a growing part of the overall labour force and therefore should be an important non-traditional source of truck drivers. However, lifestyle and other issues pose major hurdles for attracting women to the job.
The market will need to be much more accommodating than it has been so far in recognizing the challenges and enabling the necessary adjustments. For most trucking companies this is the single largest challenge they and the industry face. It will not be resolved easily. At the end of the day, those carriers that have the drivers will win. But, shippers need to take note as well. There is likely to be a competition for trucking capacity the likes of which have not been experienced at any time before.
By: David Bradley