As the Trump administration continues trucking along, they’ve set their sights on a new issue: how goods are transported domestically.
Late last month, the president signed an executive order intended to help pave the way for drones to begin making deliveries, offering an option for businesses to literally buzz past the problems of aging infrastructure and expensive human employees when delivering their products.
But while proponents of peace and quiet hold vigil and retail giants hold celebrations in the wake of the news, commercial truckers hold their breath.
As it is, the industry is experiencing a crisis of faith.
A lack of qualified drivers was named the top problem facing the commercial trucking industry in a recent report released by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), a nonprofit research arm of the freight sector.
In it, the ATRI authors said the industry was short nearly 48,000 drivers, with the issue only expected to expand, reaching an estimated shortfall of up to 175,000 by 2025.
And with online shopping more popular than ever (an estimated 30% of Americans shop online weekly, and nearly 5% make online purchases daily), many are concerned the problem will only be exacerbated. A dwindling number of drivers simply won’t be able to deliver on the industry’s commercial promises.
Low Supply, High Demand
The idea of a driver shortage isn’t new for the trucking industry. In fact, a report on the problem was commissioned by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) more than two years ago.
The average age of truck drivers across the country is 49, and only 5.8% are women, according to an American Trucking Associations report.
The document dates the modern shortfall crisis back to 2005, when it says the commercial trucking sector was down 20,000 drivers. The problem continued until 2008, when the economy flat-lined, zapping the country’s desire to spend money on material goods and helping the industry reach equilibrium through deflated demand.
But as the recession regressed, the sector’s old issue reared its head again, and by 2011, the shortage had returned, quickly escalating to a driver differential of 38,000, the report states.
One of the biggest factors in making the problem perennial is the limited demographic makeup of those employed to drive semi-trucks. The average age of drivers across the industry is 49, and only 5.8% are women, according to the ATA report.
Further compounding the issue is the matter of driver pay, which makes up over one-third of operational costs—and is only increasing as supply of qualified drivers continues to dip, the report states. With labor coming at such a premium, the argument goes, many businesses may be reluctant to make more hires.
All told, to overcome the shortfall for good, trucking companies would have to bring on 890,000 new drivers over the course of the next decade, the report suggests—with about half of those new hires meant to replace retiring employees and more than one-third needed to keep up with an increasing demand for deliveries.
Such astronomical numbers give the industry few options to seek out new staff—but some have begun looking for answers in unusual places.
In It for the Long Haul
Piloting a semi-truck is not easy work. The hours are long, the trips are lonely, and the stopovers can be exceptionally dangerous.
But some commercial trucking companies may have found a new group of drivers who don’t mind taking on such challenges: convicted felons.
Some in the industry have reported a trend of companies giving those with criminal records a second chance at employment. Long-haul trucking makes a good match for this worker pool, some argue, as proper qualifications can be achieved with relative speed and ease and many of the previously incarcerated have little family to worry about leaving behind for long trips on the road.
The idea could be mutually beneficial, helping fill in the gap of drivers the industry needs, while offering a stable income to those who could benefit from it most. (A wide range of studies have shown ties between gainful employment and the reduced odds of being re-incarcerated—though convicted felons are far less likely to receive job offers, on the whole.)
Still, the idea could lead to other problems.
Insurance companies can call the shots when it comes to which drivers are in charge of hauling which cargo, and that could complicate the issue for employers. A criminal past could also prevent some drivers from earning a hazmat endorsement, limiting the career potential of an ex-con in the commercial trucking field.
But all of the concern may ultimately be in vain, as the industry as a whole may not be run by humans for long.
A Brave New World
The president’s executive order is just the latest sign that drone deliveries are being taken more seriously. However, the private sector has been working on perfecting the issue for years.
Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has been busy with Project Wing, a drone delivery venture it’s been testing in Australia.
Another subsidiary of the company, Waymo, is chipping away at making all truck driving jobs automated—and they’re not alone. Heavy hitters like Uber, Tesla, and Amazon, as well as myriad smaller start-ups, are all reportedly working on developing self-driving semis.
With the sophistication of the technology quickly advancing, human pilots of the machines may be able to drive the long haul, but their presence may not be needed in the long run.