U.S. Trucking Battles Surging Demand and a Dearth of Drivers

The North American trucking industry has had its own year of firsts, with record demand to haul goods, capacity constraints and the pandemic all making the roadways much tougher to navigate.

The surging need for road freight has exacerbated yet another issue: not enough qualified drivers in an era of stricter drug tests.

“Demographics, a new alcohol-and-drug clearinghouse and increased hair-follicle testing, as well as Covid-19 forcing many drivers off the road and limiting new ones, will be industry headwinds in 2021,” said Lee Klaskow, Bloomberg Intelligence’s senior logistics analyst.

The average age of a driver is 46, according to the American Trucking Association, and more than 55% are 45 or older. Many also face health challenges including hypertension and obesity, reflecting a job associated with long hours, little physical activity and limited access to healthy foods.

The pandemic has constricted the number of new drivers coming to the industry through driving schools, some of which are closed, while others have curbed enrollment because of social-distancing measures.

Nationwide database

Strict rules on substance use are also thinning the pool. Carriers can now use the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse — an online database — to identify prospective drivers prohibited from operating a commercial motor vehicle due to a violations of drug and alcohol programs.

Reported transgressions exceeded 40,000 in September, with 52% related to marijuana. Despite being recreationally or medically legal in a growing number of states, cannabis remains an illegal substance for federally regulated truck drivers.

Companies are using more sophisticated drug checks such as hair-follicle testing, which can pick up usage from as many as six months before. A recent study by the University of Central Arkansas concluded that about 300,000 drivers would fail a hair-follicle test.

This would eliminate about 9% of drivers from the workforce, Klaskow said. The American Trucking Associations is lobbying for carriers to report positive hair-test results through a clearinghouse proposed by the FMCSA, which could further reduce the pool of qualified drivers.

To ease constraints, companies could:

  • Cast a wider net to attract and retain staff. “The industry needs to do more to make trucking a safe and appealing vocation for women,” who account for about 9% of drivers, Klaskow said. The FMCSA also has a new pilot program to allow drivers aged 18 to 20 into the industry.
  • Companies could also ease the shortage with autonomous trucks, but the technology is best-suited for closed networks, and it will be decades before it’s widely adopted, Klaskow said.

Source: Bloomberg News

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