Where have all the truck drivers gone?

“Long-haul driving, in particular, can be grueling, with lengthy wait times that aren’t compensated and other costs to being out on a route for stretches at a time. “Why do people not want to become truck drivers? That’s the situation, or the root of the issue. And the reason for that is it’s a shitty job,” said Hanno Friedrich, associate professor of freight transportation at Kühne Logistics University.”

“The first thing to know about the truck driver shortage, experts said, is that it’s not exactly a shortage. “It’s a recruitment and retention problem,” said Michael Belzer, a trucking industry expert at Wayne State University.
In the US, “there are in fact millions of truck drivers — people who have commercial driver’s licenses — who are not driving trucks and are not using those commercial driving licenses, more than we would even need,” Belzer said. “That’s because people have gotten recruited into this job, maybe paid to get trained in this job, and realize, ‘This is not for me. This is not adequate for what I’m doing.’”

When it comes to recruitment, it’s hard to get people into the business, especially young people. There’s often a gap between when people leave school (say, age 18) and when they can legally drive a truck across state lines (typically age 21), which means those folks may have already found jobs and aren’t going to be wooed away to become truckers.

There are other barriers to entry, like schooling (the costs of which can vary) and the ability to obtain a special class of driver’s license. Around the world, training and testing for truck drivers stalled because of Covid-19 lockdowns. The industry also struggles to attract women into the workforce because of safety concerns and inadequate accommodations along routes and at rest stops.

But truck driving also isn’t the job it used to be. In the United States, for example, deregulation of the industry, which accelerated in the 1980s, alongside the decline of unions, means trucker wages have been shrinking for years. But the work itself hasn’t really changed. It involves long hours, and a lot of that can be time spent uncompensated. “You could spend all day or a day and a night waiting around to get a load at a port site offloaded and loaded up, and you’re not getting paid for any of that time,” said Matthew Hockenberry, a professor at Fordham University who studies the media of global production.

This feeds not just into the recruitment problem, but also the retention problem. Truck drivers are burned out. Long-haul drivers, especially — that is, those who are moving cargo long distances or across states — typically get paid for the trips they take, and they have to go where the cargo needs to go, with little control over when and where. “The route is the route,” as Weaver put it.”

“The toughness of being a truck driver — the long hours, the treks, the waiting at ports or warehouses to get the goods — isn’t an accident. It’s mostly a consequence of being caught up in the demands of the modern supply chain, the one that is under so much pressure now.

Experts told me that even as wages for truckers have declined, shipping and logistics companies are increasing their rates. But that hasn’t really trickled down to the truck drivers’ pockets. “The trucking companies fight over the scraps. And the drivers fight over the scraps left over after the trucking companies fight over it. All of this cascades down, and the most powerful party here is always the one to win,” Belzer said.

And, he added, when it came to truckers: “Because of where they stand in the power relations throughout the supply chain, they’re the least powerful people.”

Experts and those involved in the trucking industry said wages for truckers have ticked up because of the labor demand in this stage of the pandemic, just as they have in other parts of the labor market in the US. There may be good signing bonuses to be had, too. But truckers don’t have a say in the routes they drive, or how long it takes for their cargo to be offloaded at a port. The job remains difficult, and it might not be enough.”

Brexit didn’t create the UK’s fuel crisis. But it did make it worse.

“A combination of factors are driving (heh) the United Kingdom’s fuel — or petrol, as it’s called — shortage.

There were disruptions in fuel delivery, but Brits’ desperation to get gas appears to be causing the current crisis. People are rushing to fill up their tanks because they are worried there will be a big shortage, and that is straining the available supply. Florian Lücker, a senior lecturer in supply chain management at the Bayes Business School at City, University of London, compared it to the US’s great toilet paper stockpiling at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have potential delays in supplies of fuel, among other things,” said Joanna Clifton-Sprigg, an assistant professor in economics at the University of Bath. “But it wouldn’t have been so bad if we all didn’t suddenly decide to go to a petrol station and fill the tanks to the full in every car we own.”

Why people were panic-buying gas in the first place is a bit more complicated. It’s not because of a national lack of fuel or gas. The UK has enough supply. It’s because there is a shortage of truck drivers able to deliver it.

This dearth of drivers isn’t exclusively a UK problem, it’s a global one, as the commercial trucking industry is struggling to recruit new workers for what is an extremely grueling job — long hours on the road, poor infrastructure to sleep or go to the bathroom.

“Being a truck driver is a really hard job,” said Dmitry Grozoubinski, director of the consultancy ExplainTrade. “It’s not hugely social. It’s not particularly high status. And in a lot of cases, it wasn’t supremely well paid.” The industry skews old, and many drivers are retiring, and though the UK is urging drivers with experience to come back, the often poor conditions and benefits are keeping people away. Add to that Covid-19 pandemic disruptions, which in the UK were particularly acute because the country suspended the testing process for truck drivers during lockdown.

The UK trucking industry is also dealing with something that exists nowhere else: Brexit. The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union has exacerbated the crisis. Or more specifically, the version of Brexit pursued by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has.

There are some signs that the immediate fuel crisis may be waning soon, and the UK government has put soldiers on standby to haul fuel, as needed. Johnson’s government has proposed a plan to bring in 5,000 foreign truck drivers through short-term temporary visas in an attempt to make up the shortfall. But that might not be enough to fill labor gaps the UK is experiencing, and Brexit — and the ideas behind Brexit — may make it harder to find long-term fixes.”

“Pay for truck drivers isn’t always commensurate with the demanding nature of the work. The job became less appealing to Brits, and so like a lot of industries, companies sought to fill their ranks with workers from elsewhere. Wealthier countries in the EU have often relied on workers from poorer EU member states, and those workers could drive a truck in the UK or Germany and take home way more money than they’d be able to earn in, say, Poland.”

“the Brexit deal negotiated with the EU created more friction between the two partners. That, too, was a deliberate choice, and has added a layer of red tape to the trading relationship. It may make it less attractive to be a trucker in the UK than in the EU and more difficult for EU truckers to make up some of the shortfall the UK is experiencing. “What Brexit has meant is that the UK no longer enjoys the way that the EU pooled resources and moved stuff around in order to take the edge off those problems,” Grozoubinski said.”

“It has also been difficult to untangle the current rules from the anti-immigration sentiment that accompanied Brexit. People may not want to come to work in the UK where there is a sense they aren’t as welcome or won’t be able to settle in the UK. That unease may have prompted some truck drivers to leave.

But, according to Elizabeth de Jong, the policy director at Logistics UK, the pandemic just made everything worse, as people may have just gone back to their home countries during the lockdowns. “The thing that has changed because of the EU exit is that we would normally be able to just bring them back, and you can’t just bring them back or recruit more from the EU,” de Jong said. “We haven’t got that option anymore.””