Global supply chain bottlenecks and port congestion have been an ongoing challenge for US shippers and a struggling American economy. Yet there’s an equally pressing issue at hand: a serious labor shortage in domestic road transportation.

As of 2020, truckers are responsible for transporting 72% of US freight across the country. That translates to $732.3 billion in annual gross freight revenues from trucking, equivalent to 80.4% of the nation’s 2020 freight bill.

Since the start of the pandemic, the US trucking industry has lost 6% of its workforce and continuously struggles to recruit. The result? In 2021, the industry was short staffed by more than 80,000 drivers – especially long-haul truckers. And the lack of manpower in this sector has created alarming consequences for the US economy.

Why are US truck drivers quitting?

More than 40 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021; the most common reasons cited were low wages, lack of opportunity, and overall job dissatisfaction. This “Great Resignation” has disproportionately affected industries with frontline essential workers, including hospitality, retail, transportation, warehousing, and utilities.

But even before the pandemic, the trucking industry experienced high turnover rates. Physically demanding labor, paired with unstable wages and rising fuel costs have made it increasingly difficult to recruit new drivers.

COVID-19 restrictions inadvertently exacerbated the national driver shortage, with training and apprenticeship programs put on hold or closed entirely.

According to this 2022 survey of 1,000 small fleet and independent US truckload drivers:

  • More than 50% of drivers have considered quitting the industry over the past six months.
  • More than 60% experienced burnout from increased supply chain demands.
  • 63% of independent or small fleet drivers have considered moving to larger trucking companies for a steadier paycheck and more consistent loads.

Consequences of the ongoing trucker shortage

It’s become increasingly difficult for companies to find enough truckers to pick up container loads from ports and transport them to their destinations on time.

Widespread trucker shortage has brought numerous consequences for US-based consumers and shippers.

  • Container pileup: Without enough truckers to unload containers and transport goods to their destinations, US ports and rail yards become overwhelmed with idling cargo. Last year, this flowed into residential neighborhoods surrounding container ports.

  • Supply chain bottlenecks: Major delays in shipped goods and a lack of visibility around delivery times cause stock shortages. Businesses are unable to meet high seasonal demand for consumer goods, dropping in-store and online sales and adding strain to the economy.

  • Inflation: Increased demand and lack of supply drive up living costs dramatically on food, fuel, utilities, retail goods and services. In 2021, the consumer price index reached 7%, its biggest jump in four decades.

Potential solutions and what lies ahead

The average age of a commercial truck driver in the US is 55 years old, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Industry recruitment has largely overlooked female, veteran, and younger candidates. Workers need to be at least 21 years old to drive commercial vehicles across state lines, and just 7.8% of US truckers are women.

This all points to a rapidly dwindling workforce, if no changes are made. To offset the number of drivers that will retire within the next two decades, industry advocates are encouraging trucking companies and policymakers to put in stronger efforts to recruit a larger and more diverse demographic of drivers.

Simultaneously, many truck drivers have been pushing for better wages, benefits, and working conditions–explaining that the issue isn’t so much labor shortage, as it is a lack of worker protections and competitive compensation.

As for how this shortage will play out in the near future, harbor truckers predict a 30% drop in truck capacity at California’s ports come January 2023. This is due to an upcoming “state mandate allowing only 2010 or newer model-year trucks to operate at their marine terminals”.

Truck dealerships and manufacturers are also experiencing delivery delays up to a year or more due to a shortage in key materials and parts. Therefore, it’s likely that the demand for viable cargo trucks will soon surpass market supply.