Driver shortages and high turnover rates are plaguing the greater trucking industry.

In 2019, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) estimated that the U.S. economy had a shortage of 61,000 drivers. In the midst of the pandemic, aspiring drivers have had trouble fronting the cost of a training school, which typically ranges between $4,000 and $10,000.

Many commercial-trucking schools closed or suspended operations because of lockdown orders in place. Some state motor vehicle departments slowed the licensing of new drivers. In all, the high barriers to entry contributed to 40% fewer drivers being trained in 2020 than in 2019.

Many experienced drivers elected to leave trucking, either choosing early retirement or opting to change careers given the uncertain climate. The ATA has revised its forecast, saying that the shortage will grow to 100,000 drivers by 2023, rising to 160,000 by 2028. 

While recruitment and churn have been persistent issues for years now, the pandemic has worsened challenges with filling cabs and keeping them filled. In a recent industry roundtable, U.S. DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg likened the problem to a leaky bucket.

The industry can recruit more, from different pools of talent and can bide its time until autonomous assets arrive on the scene (and will likely still need drivers after then). Even if these strategies pan out, the industry has another pressing issue ahead: keeping skilled drivers aboard for the long haul.

The High Cost of Driver Turnover

There is significant churn among drivers — about 90% annually at large over-the-road truckload carriers and 70% at smaller and regional carriers according to the ATA, which places trucking among the industries with the highest turnover rates. Route length, in particular, contributes to higher turnover. At local fleet operations, yearly turnover is 20%.

Drivers cite poor pay, insufficient revenue miles, and limited time at home as reasons for leaving their current roles. Many choose to switch employees, go solo as owner-operators, or leave the profession entirely.

For fleet management, the constant need to fill driver roles is costly. Onboarding just one driver can cost carriers in excess of $10,000, not to mention the initial productivity losses as the driver adjusts to new vehicle specs.


Carriers, Regulators Rush to Keep Drivers

The cost to onboard new drivers can be a luxury though. Many carriers simply cannot fill seats. It is especially true for specialized driving roles with additional licensing like fuel tanker drivers. The lack of available drivers elsewhere has hiked up the prices of produce, steel, timber, and increased spot prices for dry vans and flatbed freight.

It’s prompted some states like Iowa and Oregon to suspend hours of service regulations for motor fuels and to permit overweight loads.

Some U.S.-based carriers are now looking abroad to recruit drivers but face drawn-out, complicated immigration proceedings to do so. Fleets have lobbied to bypass some of these requirements in order to speed up the process. They have also pressed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to lower the minimum age from 21 to 18, though opponents say that putting younger drivers behind the wheel will put themselves and motorists at risk.

4 Ways to Boost Driver Retention

Both load-related adjustments and new sources of labor provide stopgap responses to a worsening problem. Here are four proactive steps that fleets can take to retain skilled, experienced drivers as part of their fleet management strategy.

​1. Automate or Digitize Back-End Paperwork & Communication. 

Both fleets and drivers want to be on the road, not having to deal with administrative non-driving tasks. Whether making communication with the dispatcher simpler or scanning a bill of lading, digital workflow solutions can eliminate or alleviate processes that eat into driver time, money, and patience.

In-app messaging tools, real-time visibility, and constant updates allow drivers to get quickly up to speed on company practices and focus their efforts where they count most. In addition, on the back-end, digital workflows enable carriers to automate tedious and lengthy processes.

2. Launch an Apprenticeship Program

While not a feasible solution for all fleet sizes, a driver apprenticeship can promote driver satisfaction. With driving school tuition on the rise, apprentice programs provide a debt-free way for candidates to enter the industry with high-quality, paid on-the-job training.

In other industries like manufacturing, apprentices have been found to report higher levels of job satisfaction, more invested in the success of their company, and are likely to stay at a company longer than their peers.

3. Outfit Vehicles with Advanced Safety Specs

With most drivers reporting that they do not feel valued by their company, advanced safety features like blindspot monitoring, power steering, and adaptive cruise control can reassure drivers with an extra degree of protection and confidence. Many of these advanced safety specs outfitted on newer vehicles realize ROI within eighteen months, helping fleets keep their trucks safely on the road.

An improved safety record is likely to help with recruitment and retention efforts and will generate savings by decreasing accident, litigation, and maintenance and repair costs.

4. Keeping Drivers and Trucks on the Road with Advanced Analytics

Pulling from existing data sources like telematics devices, sensors, fault code diagnostics, fluids, and work order histories, advanced analytics can give fleet managers enough lead time on impending vehicle conditions to avoid roadside breakdowns and place drivers in reliable vehicles.

It allows fleet repair shops to make those repairs that most uncover value. It also enables them to ensure driver satisfaction with pay.

Fleets traditionally review mileage pay for drivers to increase their base rate, but keeping a truck on the road moving with revenue-generating miles offsets the issue.

Otherwise, fleets risk losing their drivers to carriers where vehicles are better maintained. Though drivers are not interacting with advanced analytics directly, they feel its benefits: more reliable vehicles and less downtime. Both help drivers cover as much ground as possible and return them to their families on time, with a higher paycheck in tow — ultimately one of the most important factors in driver retention.

Through a combination of driver training, back-end technologies, safety specs, and advanced analytics, fleets can take proactive steps to boost driver retention. In doing so, they will help keep the drivers they already have, improve their asset reliability, save on maintenance, and pave the way for their fleet to become the next destination for skilled drivers.


About the Author: Braden Pastalaniec is the Vice President of Transportation at Uptake, a Chicago-based Industrial AI and Analytics company. This article was authored and edited according to WT editorial standards and style to provide useful information to our readers. Opinions expressed may not reflect that of WT.