JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. (WDRB) – Before the COVID-19 pandemic, B & J Trucking Service managed as many as 80 tractor trailers making deliveries to different parts of the U.S. But over the past year, controller Steve Jenkins said, the company lost about 10 percent of its drivers.
“We had several of our drivers who might have been 65 to 70 years old last year who just kind of hung it up,” Jenkins said. “They said, ‘You know, it's just too crazy to deal with all this stuff out there. So we're just going to retire.’”
At the time, coronavirus restrictions meant a slowdown on shipments of dry food and other perishable goods to restaurants and other customers. As vaccinations have helped reopen the economy, Jenkins said B & J Trucking has had to turn down some business it never would have in the past.
“Now that things have picked back up, it's pretty tough to get those drivers back or get them replaced,” he said.
Jenkins’ account reflects a popular talking point in the industry: Trucking groups say there is a national shortage of nearly 61,000 drivers that began well before the global outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 and is expected to widen in the years ahead. The pandemic only made it worse, they say, as truck driving schools and vehicle licensing branches temporarily closed.
There probably isn’t a shortage of truck drivers making trips inside a given state, said Gary Langston, president of the Indiana Motor Truck Association. Rather, he said, it’s an issue affecting drivers who cross state lines.
That’s because truck drivers must be 21 to make interstate trips, even though they can obtain a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, at 18. A bipartisan bill pending in Congress, the DRIVE Safe Act, would create an apprenticeship program allowing drivers under 21 to start driving between states.
Langston said he believes that legislation could help bring younger drivers into the workforce.
“We’re hoping that that the DRIVE Safe Act, combined with the new technologies in the vehicles, will attract some different folks,” he said. “But I think those are the primary reasons that we're continuing to suffer such a shortage.”
In all, the American Trucking Associations estimates that about 1.1 million new drivers are needed in the next decade, or about 110,000 per year, to meet demand. The associations’ Kentucky and Indiana affiliates don’t track specific figures in their states but say it’s going to be critical to replace an aging generation of drivers on the cusp of retirement.
Not everyone agrees that a shortage exists. Two U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics economists questioned the notion of a longstanding labor shortage in a 2019 article, concluding that the market for truck drivers nationally was as competitive as other industries.
In response, the trucking associations’ top economist said the group has consistently said the shortage refers to one segment of the industry, drivers who carry over-the-road freight and spend several weeks on the road away from home. And he stressed that trucking companies continue to say they don’t have enough qualified applicants.
But the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents smaller trucking companies and drivers who own their own trucks, says large industry groups have pushed the narrative of a “shortage” for years.
“The reason companies perpetuate the myth of a shortage is because they're looking for government to do something to increase the supply of new people coming in, people that they know they won't have to pay much,” said Todd Spencer, OOIDA’s president.
Spencer said he believes trucking companies don’t have a shortage of drivers. Instead, he argues, they have a problem with turnover.
He said truck drivers continue to struggle to find parking spaces to spend the night, while some object to waiting hours for products to be loaded – time they don’t get paid.
Added Norita Taylor, an OOIDA spokeswoman: “If there was a shortage, well then why is it that the store shelves are still full? Why is it that deliveries are still getting made? Stuff is still moving.”
While trucking industry groups argue about the true scope of any labor shortage, the Louisville/Southern Indiana region is a “hotspot” for drivers of heavy trucks and tractor trailers.
That’s according to the most recent data from the analytics firm Emsi and provided by the KentuckianaWorks workforce development agency.
The data show that the 10-county area has 10,329 truck drivers, higher than the national average of 7,926 for a comparably sized area. “This higher than expected supply may make it easier to find candidates,” the report says.
It also found that the median salary for truck drivers in the Louisville area is $53,386; the national median salary is $47,133.
At Hill Transportation, some drivers can make salaries of more than $80,000 per year, said Billy Hill, the company’s owner and president. And even though Hill said he reduced his company’s fleet of flatbed trucks to about 30 percent of its normal levels during the pandemic, no drivers were laid off.
Now, as the economy bounces back, Hill said his customers are eager for the aluminum and metal Hill Transportation trucks carry across the Midwest and upper South.
“Coming back from COVID, the demand for metals — whether it be automotive, industrial, even into drinks — has increased exponentially,” he said. “So needing drivers to move that material is as tough as it's been for a long time.”
Meanwhile, some trucking schools are reporting full classes.
Truck America Training in Shepherdsville had to close briefly for several months last summer, general manager Jason Staker said. It now runs classes capped at 12 students.
“Ever since we've picked back up, we've had full classes,” he said. “So I would venture to say that we've actually increased our enrollment ever since the pandemic started.”
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