A Truck Driver Shortage and Roadblocks to Job Fulfillment

November 21, 2023
By Melanie Stern

Professional truck drivers are essential. Most people in the U.S. rely on trucking to supply the goods needed to sustain their livelihood.

Study findings project a U.S. truck driver shortage of 80,000 for this year, with those numbers expected to reach 160,000 in 2030.

“We only have a little more than one of every two adults participating in the workforce,” says Danny Markstein of strategic communications agency Markstein. His Birmingham, Alabama-based company services clients across many industries, including transportation. He says when the 2024 year-end projected national average of workforce participation is “about 60.9 percent, it creates a real challenge when you’re trying to build a workforce,” he says. “This is what’s behind the shortage of professional truck drivers.”

According to Washington, D.C.’s Urban Institute, older drivers on the job aged 55 and above outpace younger drivers five times over. As they retire over the next decade, the professional truck driver shortage could grow more pervasive.

“Take the state of Alabama. Almost 70 percent of the communities rely on trucks for their products. People expect access to goods more quickly today and trucking provides that connection point to receive them, and that level of demand isn’t going away,” Markstein says.

Moving Forward in Reverse

Population shifts and the global pandemic accelerated the patterns of declining workforce participation. Markstein states that the only age group coming back into the workforce is drivers 55 and older — not because they want to, but because of financial considerations.

Despite their reintegration into the workforce, the aging population’s employment participation will wane over the coming decade as many enter retirement. As such, trucking is being forced to rely on people who have yet to consider the industry, making the search for talent more complicated. “The skill sets are changing, creating a skill gap,” Markstein says.

The process of choosing a career path has changed over the years, he says: “Before, we would choose a career based on the people in our life: a family member or a friend. Today, there are a long list of factors that play a role in one’s employment journey.”

The rate of available job candidates has slowed, he says, with many opting out of work, creating a pressure cooker in trucking and other industries. These circumstances force employers to look at different ways to find job seekers. On the flip side, Markstein acknowledges barriers into trucking as a profession but says there are clear and accessible pathways to enter — and a six-figure income is a great incentive.

Overcoming Career Bias

Some longtime misconceptions and stereotypes about professional truck drivers persist. But like other career options, Markstein says, “unless you’ve worked the job and know the people involved, your ideas about what it entails are based on bias.” Prospective employees should be open to new possibilities, he says.

The increasing use of technology across logistics providing benefit to the sector may also increase insecurities among potential job candidates who lack those skills. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) asked 352 scientists, some of them global experts on machine learning, about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation in business. Some espoused automated technology making an entry point into the trucking industry by 2027, while others believed AI will maneuver trucks in transit within 10 years.

Markstein says entirely automated fleets are more likely to happen in 20 to 25 years. “While some may say that AI is an employment barrier to come, we still need people to monitor and manage advanced technologies’ implementation,” he says.

Other falsehoods about trucking include drivers being gone for days on end, he says: “You can work in trucking, be at home each night and have a personal life. So, it’s about reeducating the public about what the career path truly entails.”

Unions and their push for better compensation and benefits played an integral role in escalating the morale of truckers across the country. “The drivers we have talked to are happy about being part of the trucking community, have an enormous sense of pride and renewed self-worth,” he says.

Merging Education and Enterprise

Current work preferences in new hires who have grown comfortable with “side gig” or flexible options may not find truck driving a career fit, as job duties and regulations don’t align with a part-time business model. While safety and compliance are at the forefront, says Markstein, even dispatch and routing responsibilities are more complicated with more vehicles on the road.

Trucking jobs come with drug testing and require on-the-job alertness, which can hamper the pool of viable candidates. “Do professional truck drivers get enough sleep? Does the industry support their physical and mental health? Trucking companies are hyper-focused and vigilant about safety on the road because no one wants to be tied to a bad outcome,” he says.

With recent pushes from educators and employers in acquiring talent proficient in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), it leaves hands-on job types with a quieter voice — unless, Markstein says, they speak louder.

“If trucking companies don’t get involved in the community, create a brand for their business, and get the word out about opportunities, the industry will stall out.” He advises trucking companies to work with community colleges to attract talent and promote on-the-job training.  

“Lines of communication between trucking companies and educational institutions must have a two-way engagement for ongoing and fluid learning, ensuring that lessons, training and testing are on par with current industry practices to meet employer and new hire expectations,” Markstein says.

Continuing Shortage is a ‘Problem’

Markstein believes the sector must work toward solving the talent recruitment challenge. He says that unless the jobs are filled, consumer livelihood and supply chains will be affected. “If we have plenty of trucks sitting at ports with goods and no one in the ports to load, unload and move them, that’s a problem,” Markstein says.

He says trucking employers should “bend but not break.” The process, he says, includes adopting an attitude of positive change through raising public awareness of the shortage, developing constructive discussion on potential solutions and increasing community engagement.

(Photo credit: Getty Images/Kameleon007)

About the Author

Melanie Stern

About the Author

Melanie Stern is Manager, Communications at Institute for Supply Management®.