From deliveries of online shopping orders to massive pieces of equipment, the open road and trucking help drive the U.S. economy. Autonomous cars and drones may be on the horizon, but trucks—with drivers—still haul and deliver goods to doorsteps. There's just one problem.
America has more open trucking jobs than available commercial drivers. As older drivers retire in greater numbers, the industry faces a driver shortage.
The yearslong labor shortfall was masked during the recession as trucking volume plummeted. Consumers bought less, and builders hauled fewer materials with the housing market's collapse. The U.S. economy and trucking volume have since recovered. And the industry has some 30,000 to 35,000 unfilled truck driver jobs, according to the American Trucking Associations, or ATA, which represents the national trucking industry.
"The underlying driver shortage never went away,"said Bob Costello, ATA's chief economist.
The driver shortfall feels more acute this time. "As the economy continues to recover, now we're feeling it again, but worse than ever," said Brian Fielkow, president of Jetco Delivery, a Houston-based company that specializes in regional trucking.
The turnover rate of drivers at large truckload carriers leaving the industry averaged 130 percent in 2005, according to ATA data. While off those levels, the turnover rate was still high for the first quarter of 2014 at an annualized rate of 92 percent. And the trucking industry is trying to avert a more severe driver shortage.
It's turning to recruiters, and working with driving schools to court the next generation. Some student drivers are securing jobs even before graduating with commercial driving licenses. The industry is paving a transition for military veterans, considering a trucking career.
The stakes, meantime, are only getting higher.