Driver shortage to get worse, Werner’s Leathers warns shippers

werner enterprises 1If there’s a solution to the long-term shortage of truck drivers, it will take a supply chain to find it, a leading trucking executive suggested last week. Shippers and carriers need to work together to build a bigger driver pool, and they’re facing serious demographic headwinds.

“The problem is going to get worse, it’s not going to get better,” Derek Leathers, chief operating officer and president of Werner Enterprises, said at the 2015 FTR Transportation Conference in Indianapolis last week. “It’s not just finding qualified drivers, it’s demographics in general.”

The U.S. truck driver pool is aging. In 2013, 29 percent of truck drivers were in the 45 to 54 year age group, compared with 23 percent for all industries, according to the American Transportation Research Institute, the research arm of the American Trucking Associations.

Trucking employs a greater percentage of persons age 65 or older, 6.1 percent, than 20-24 year olds, 4.9 percent. A pressing question, ATRI said in a report, is whether there will be enough 25-34 year olds to replace the 45-54 year olds when they retire in 10 to 20 years.

“An analysis of 20 years of annual data confirmed that a demographic shift is underway within the trucking industry,” ATRI said in its December 2014 report. “It is evident that over the past 20 years, the 25-34 group, as a percentage of industry employees, has decreased significantly.”

Those numbers haven’t improved in the past year, and with unemployment dropping close to 5 percent, many 25-34 year olds are already working other jobs than trucking. “We have to spend our way through part of this problem,” Leathers said at FTR. “There’s no way around it.”

Truck driver wages have been rising over the past year, climbing by double-digit percentages at some carriers. At Werner Enterprises, the fifth-largest U.S. truckload company, according to SJ Consulting Group, truck driver pay is up 10 percent from a year ago, Leathers said.

The money for those pay hikes came from shippers. “About two-thirds of rate increases are going to driver wages and driver wage relief,” Leathers said during a panel discussion on the state of the economy and the trucking industry. “That’s a pretty healthy percentage.”

Leathers stressed paying higher rates now is an investment in future capacity. “The great customers are the ones who understand that over time they will spend less money,” he said. “We have to make sure that our trucks roll into those customers that do support us.”

It will take more action and collaboration to put a dent in the shortage of qualified drivers, however. “Collaboration is really important, and working together really helps,” Leathers said. “It’s unusual now that shippers don’t ask me what else they can do” to be “driver friendly.”

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