Why Are Shelves Empty? Ask A Trucker

By Garland West February 9, 2022 | 8 MIN READ

The Dirt

The effects of the Covid pandemic linger across virtually every economic sector of our country, but perhaps none more so than our transportation system. Delays in moving all sorts of products from origin to destination continue to create limited supplies and spot shortages. The difficulties facing the domestic trucking industry illustrate the complexity of the issues creating disruptions to the supply chain – and the reasons why no simple or quick solutions to the problem are on the horizon.

Global Food

Why Are Shelves Empty? Ask A Trucker

By Garland West February 9, 2022 | 8 MIN READ

The Dirt

The effects of the Covid pandemic linger across virtually every economic sector of our country, but perhaps none more so than our transportation system. Delays in moving all sorts of products from origin to destination continue to create limited supplies and spot shortages. The difficulties facing the domestic trucking industry illustrate the complexity of the issues creating disruptions to the supply chain – and the reasons why no simple or quick solutions to the problem are on the horizon.

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Transportation is the common thread tying together every step of our modern supply chain, from dirt to dinner. It provides the mechanism for a smooth flow from one link in the chain to the next, speeding the astounding process of converting commodities into the finished food products we consume each day. Trucks, river barges, massive ocean vessels, railroads, even airplanes all play a vital role in the uninterrupted flow of our food.

Trucking is a $732 billion industry that employs almost six percent of the U.S. workforce, with an estimated 3.6 million professional drivers, 2 million over-the-road drivers, 1.5 million in local delivery and transport, and support staff of 8 million.

An invisible thread

But as essential as all modes of transportation are to our food security, it’s far too easy for each transportation element, like trucking, to remain largely invisible, taken for granted because of its historic quiet competence and compliance in fulfilling its food-chain role.

, Why Are Shelves Empty? Ask A Trucker

At least, it was until Covid came on the scene and changed everything. Suddenly, the supply chain simply didn’t operate with its usual ballet-like choreography. The trucking system is front and center in any effort to understand how our supply chain operates, especially for the food we need for our families.

Just consider the sheer size of these numbers:

  • The U.S. transportation system moved about 51 million tons of goods valued at $51.8 billion every day prior to the pandemic, almost 57 tons for every U.S. resident per year.
  • Trucks move the majority of all freight, with estimates from 40 to as high as 72 percent of the total, according to the American Trucking Association.
  • Agricultural freight – from raw commodities to finished food products – measured 4.5 billion tons, worth $3.1 trillion dollars, in 2018. 80 percent of all agricultural freight is shipped on trucks.

Behind the dizzying assortment of facts and figures, the trucking industry faces a whole host of challenges – many dating far beyond the pandemic. If anything, Covid merely poured gasoline – or maybe diesel fuel – on a fire that already was burning within the industry. The source of the fire: problems with attracting people willing and able to do the demanding job of piloting the sometimes massive and specialized machinery – and living the lifestyle that it demands.

“It’s always the truck”

My local grocery store manager responded to a customer unhappy with the lack of a particular product with a very simple explanation: “I’m sorry. But the truck never came in… It’s always the truck.”

The problem wasn’t a lack of a truck. Equipment isn’t the issue at all, according to most industry observers. Store shelves go empty and ocean vessels clog major ports often for the same reason: because there’s no truck – or more accurately, no truck driver — to move the cargoes along. It’s a shortage of the people trained for what can be a very tough job – and a rapidly aging set of current driving professionals.

Long before Covid, the trucking industry struggled to match the rising demand for freight movement with enough drivers. The average age for professional drivers is about 55, according to The American Trucking Association (ATA) and other industry and government estimates. That’s about a decade older than the average age for other comparable industries. And many of those are giving up on the job early, tired of the demands of the job and the constant fight for compensation and benefits.

In addition to being older, truck drivers are most likely to be male (93 percent) and white (77 percent, compared to 23 percent Hispanic/Latin, 17 percent African American, 4 percent Asian).

Before Covid, the shortage of drivers was widely estimated at 60,000 jobs. With Covid, the gap widened to 80,000, and industry experts like ATA’s Chief Economist Bob Costello project the shortage could double to 160,000 in a decade.

Many sacrifices to consider

There’s no one reason for the shortage, but rather many. It begins with the realities of over-the-road trucking. The job demands long hours – up to 14 hours, with maybe 11 behind the wheel and the remainder doing paperwork, basic maintenance, minor repairs and other chores. In most situations, as an Over-The-Road (“OTR”) driver, you are capped at 60 hours total in seven days, 70 hours in eight days, then required to take 34 hours off. Expanding regulatory requirements grow more complex almost every year, from both federal and state agencies, with extensive record-keeping and strict compliance with substance-abuse protections.

, Why Are Shelves Empty? Ask A TruckerLong hours with little movement and stress contribute to serious health issues, too.

OTR drivers suffer from higher-than-average rates of obesity and diabetes.

Smoking rates also are higher, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has warned that drivers face a higher-than-average risk of Covid infection.

Beyond these health concerns, trucking remains a dangerous profession – the seventh most fatal profession in the United States, with about 1,000 deaths annually, or roughly one-fifth of all workplace fatalities.

Government figures from before the pandemic show truckers are 6.5 times more likely to be killed in job-related accidents than the average worker.

Long hauls also mean long, lonely periods away from home and family, unpredictable food and the stress that comes from knowing you are piloting a vehicle weighing up to 80,000 pounds at speeds of 60 mph on roadways where not all drivers are professional, or all weather conditions perfect.

Drivers have the second-highest divorce rate of any industry – better than 40 percent. Like other high-stress professions, OTR drivers are not immune from the dangers of alcoholism and substance abuse, and the industry and regulators combat the risk aggressively.

Which road to choose

Drivers also must choose what kind of driving to do. A commercial driver’s license – or “CDL” – is mandatory, and special license classes may be needed to haul specific cargoes. Local delivery services often demand less investment of time and money in training, and short-haul jobs help improve time at home but generally pay less. Specialized certificates – for hauling food-grade and environment-controlled cargoes or hazardous materials, for example, demand special training, often well beyond the basic training of up to six or seven weeks.

You likely begin your career making something on the order of $43,000 – maybe more in select areas like the northeast, even less in some others like the mid-south. Over time, the median salary will rise if you are patient and stay at the job with an established freight or trucking company, rising to $70,000 or more. Much higher compensation packages are possible, notably for specialized and highly-trained drivers.

Drivers who own and operate their own vehicle also can make more money – but must accept the higher risks that come with it, including higher costs for fuel, insurance, equipment maintenance, benefits, and other costs of doing business. It’s not surprising to see an extraordinarily high turnover rate for drivers – estimated by the industry at 90 percent per year – as drivers constantly seek out better, more rewarding opportunities with other trucking firms, strike out on their own, shift to less demanding careers, or simply go home and hope for more Covid relief funds.

So what’s to be done?

Despite the many reasons to be pessimistic, the trucking industry seems to remain surprisingly optimistic about the future – often for some surprising reasons.

One is the simple allure of the job to many. Few other professions offer comparable opportunities to fulfill a common sense of rugged individualism and independence or to satisfy the allure of the open road. More important, drivers repeatedly cite the importance of the role they play in serving important needs. They, perhaps, recognize the value of the supply chain in modern life, even if they don’t express it in abstract terms.

The American public seems to appreciate the role they play, too.  A survey by an organization known as “Trucking Moves America Forward” found that two-thirds of respondents have a “high regard” for truckers and the industry. Trucking professionals take pride in being widely known as “the Knights of the Open Road.”

, Why Are Shelves Empty? Ask A TruckerAdding to that spirit, the fading effects of Covid may prove highly beneficial.

The economy is beginning to revive, with more jobs and robust consumer demand once again on the table. People seem ready to get back to work, especially as relief payments from the federal government fade into memory.

The industry seems eager to tap into this spirit to recruit new and younger drivers, with aggressive training and education programs and career promotion.

Also, simple economics have to be considered. To get more of something, economic theory goes, offer more. The industry must deal with the need to generate a compensation system more in line with the demands and expectations for pay, benefits and other forms of compensation of a workforce of the size and quality it knows it needs now and will need in the future. For consumers, this means a willingness to accept another element of the inflationary pressures that drive up prices for all goods – including food.

The industry also is working with the government to address concerns about the effect of well-intentioned but extensive regulatory requirements (such as more detailed, electronic record-keeping, and increased substance testing) that deter many prospects. Efforts to promote driving as an attractive career for women also are gaining traction, with the proportion of female drivers among some of the more established freight and trucking enterprises rising sharply, to as much as 20 percent in some instances. Driving teams also appear to be growing in number, including husband-wife combos.

The autonomous future

Automation also has emerged as a major area for attention by industry and government alike. Amazing technological progress has led to pioneering examples of self-directed transportation mechanisms, including some successful truck piloting systems.

Improvements in automation would create meaningful efficiencies with some of our largest trade partners.

Trucks ferry the overwhelming majority of our exports to Canada (68 percent) and Mexico (83 percent). Likewise, the majority of our imports also arrive via trucks from Canada (59 percent) and Mexico (72 percent).

Those technology-based solutions won’t provide an immediate answer to the question of what to do about today’s driver and overall labor shortage. Pew Research in 2017 found that fully half of all Americans have some degree of worry about driverless vehicles. Serious questions about safety and reliability remain to be resolved to the satisfaction of demanding legislatures and oversight agencies. But that work is underway, with developmental work for passenger cars and trucks moving along twin tracks.

Much of the attention centers on the degree of automation to build into vehicles. Prototypes generally have five different levels of automation, from simple driver assistance with tasks such as parking, all the way to complete control of the vehicle – a true driverless car or truck. Various automated features already at work in equipment in warehouses and other relatively low-risk environments, and companies such as Volvo and Tesla have made significant progress in turning the idea of vehicle driving automation into reality.

Automated driving features have expanded rapidly, with more than 31 million vehicles (out of roughly 289 million vehicles on the road) in 2019 having some level of automation.  It’s already a $32 billion industry, with projected growth rates of 15 percent or more.

Innovative applications of artificial intelligence and automation promise to play a significant role in finding a long-term solution to the labor issue confronting the trucking industry.

And none the least, supply chain specialists and the trucking industry ask for a little understanding and accommodation. Each segment of the food chain should look for ways to help the trucking industry – and every part of the transportation system – deal with the shortage of people and the resulting complications. Let’s find ways to smooth out the twists in the chain as best we can, as we work through the bigger, thornier issues.

The Bottom Line

Be patient with – and understanding of – the continuing hiccups in the supply chain. Trucks make up the cornerstone of the transportation system that moves an almost endless roster of goods to the consumer, especially the food products we eat every day. The industry faces serious issues in maintaining the high standard for reliability earned over the years, many tied to attracting, training and retaining a larger and more diverse cadre of capable, dedicated professionals – and embracing the technologies needed to satisfy future growth in demand for its invaluable services. Supply chain disruptions affecting our food supply and delivery may well linger for some time. But the industry is working hard to find the solutions we need and expect.