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Truck Driver Shortage Projected to Hit All-Time High in 2017

Economic outlook remains rosy on higher freight demand, tighter capacity.

The shortage of qualified truck drivers is projected to hit an all-time high of 50,000 by the end of 2017, according to Bob Costello, chief economist of American Trucking Associations (ATA).

This chronic issue was one of the few negative pieces from an otherwise positive assessment of freight demand and the U.S. economy.

“In addition to the sheer lack of drivers, fleets are also suffering from a lack of qualified drivers, which amplifies the effects of the shortage on carriers,” Costello said.

He spoke at a panel discussion at the 2017 ATA Management Conference & Exhibition that included Derrick Leathers, president and CEO of Werner Enterprises Inc., and Rebecca Brewer, president of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI).

Costello warned if action was not taken to address the driver shortage, the figure could swell to more than 174,000 by 2026. Replacing retiring drivers account for nearly half of the shortage, followed by overall industry growth.

Leathers said it remains difficult to find applicants that meet the hiring criteria of Werner, a truckload carrier based in Omaha, NE. The company has received more than 100,000 applications this year, but has only been able to bring on board about 2.7% of those drivers. 

ATRI’s Brewster said more fleets are offering hiring bonuses, as well as additional compensation for safe driving, on-time delivery, and retention. Still, Costello noted, the turnover rate for truckload fleets remains around 90% on an annualized basis.

Leathers said with inventories more in balance and consumer confidence on the upswing, the economic pickup appears to be “different this time” than what he classified as “false positives” in previous years.

At the same time, capacity is not growing nearly as fast as what the industry experienced earlier this decade. When combined with the upcoming electronic logging mandate, it appears likely that “if things don’t change, 2018 will be a pretty good year,” Costello said.

He added the outlook would be event brighter if Congress is successful in passing a tax reform package this year.

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