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What if the coach of a professional basketball team had a key player foul out in the waning minutes of a playoff game, only to look down the bench and realize he had no replacements? That is what many trucking owners and managers are seeing daily. The trucking industry has no “bench” — it doesn’t have enough quality drivers to enter the game and, in our case, fill the seats.
While the driver shortage is not new, COVID worsened the problem.
COVID exposed the underlying reasons for the shortage — an aging workforce with an average age of 55 and an industry that has struggled to recruit younger people or retain existing drivers. That paradigm left the trucking industry vulnerable to a major unforeseen event, such as the pandemic.
Due to the composition of its workforce, trucking was hit harder by the pandemic than other industries. All of us know older drivers who retired or simply stepped away rather than deal with the challenges posed by the pandemic.
But has anyone stopped to ask if these drivers would have left if the pandemic never happened? Many of these drivers were among the industry’s most skilled and safest, and maybe they weren’t quite ready to leave the road. Some left due to circumstances such as health concerns or the economy, not necessarily because they wanted to stop driving.
Could these seasoned professionals be lured back? The answer is yes, but going forward the job must be tailored to fit this age group from both a lifestyle and a pay perspective.
At this point in their lives, many of these drivers want to be home every night, and may find loading or unloading freight a challenge. Short routes that allow them to sleep in their own beds at night, and jobs that are less physically demanding — such as drop-and-hook loads with “no-touch” freight — may encourage them to come back.
The improved public image of trucking may also compel them to return. The pandemic elevated the importance of truck drivers to the public. And the public is also now more aware of the driver shortage, which on the ground level may lead to greater appreciation shown to these professionals.
But attracting back these drivers is, at best, a short-term solution.
Longer-term, we must create a pipeline to fill our future needs. This improved public image may create greater interest by younger people to consider careers in trucking. It will take some time, but telling our industry’s story now to the incoming generation — especially in this moment — is vital.
To attract young people as drivers, we must continue to update our image. We must market ourselves as the dynamic industry that we are, where truck drivers are operating high-tech trucks with technology rivaling that of any other cutting-edge profession.
Young people wish to work in a positive work environment where their opinions and views are valued. We must communicate and engage these young people via social media to help them understand what the industry offers. We can craft messages for those various platforms that create and maintain interest.
And we need to start early. We can reach out to our youth when they are in their formative years such as middle school and high school. In doing so we must also engage school officials and teachers to help them understand that there are many paths to success. For example, some companies are bringing truck simulators to the schools, which pique the interest of students, who may spend a lot of time playing video games. This provides them a real-world sense of driving a truck and can get them excited for a career in trucking.
The coach in our example up top is staring at the game clock. He has some veterans on the bench he can call in to finish the game. But before too long, he’s going to need to backfill that bench with some strong, young talent. Let’s get those veterans back in the game now, and get the young recruits ready to step in soon.
Greg Fulton is president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, which represents more than 600 companies directly involved or affiliated with trucking in Colorado.
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