The COVID-19 pandemic continues to highlight the sheer importance of long-haul drivers in the United States as record unemployment in the trucking industry leads to disruptions in supply chains nationwide. Namely, these unemployment rates resulted in a critical driver shortage in the industry, forcing carriers to increase their spot rates. According to Business Insider, when carrier rates increase, retailers tend to pass the transportation costs down to consumers. During the last driver shortage, Amazon raised their Prime membership price by $20. Clearly, a driver shortage affects more than just the trucking industry.
As we move forward in 2021, the trucking industry needs to address the long-lasting challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic in order to improve driver employment levels and avoid further turmoil.
Where did all of the Truck Drivers go?
One of the main factors leading to the shortage of long-haul truck drivers is the global economic recession. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the trucking industry saw record unemployment rates, with over 88,000 jobs lost in April alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While unemployment rates have improved since April, the U.S. unemployment rate currently hovers around 6.7%—the highest it’s been in years.
Some carrier companies have since closed down their operations permanently due to decreased demand and increased driver costs. Government-mandated social distancing measures imposed on those remaining carrier companies negatively impacted productivity and further limited the need for truck drivers.
Increase in Unemployment Benefits
Due to the drastic increase in unemployment, the United States government passed legislation that increased unemployment benefits and provided stimulus payments for Americans. Many older drivers decided to protect their health by accepting the unemployment benefits, rather than travel the country and put themselves at risk of infection.
For a while, the increased benefits actually provided unemployed drivers with nearly comparable salaries to what they would be making while fully employed, disincentivizing them from returning to the workforce right away. Hundreds of owner/operators even received federal PPP loans to keep them afloat without having to work during the pandemic. As for what’s next, President-elect Joe Biden has his own plans for economic relief packages, including a boost in unemployment benefits that will certainly impact the trucking industry.
Not only is the pandemic responsible for widespread unemployment throughout the trucking industry, it also pushes many older drivers to cash in on their retirement early. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, long-haul drivers are an especially high-risk population, stating, “The unique co‐occurrence of pronounced health disparities and known COVID‐19 infection, morbidity, and mortality risks suggest the possibility of a novel COVID‐19 based truck driver syndemic due to advanced driver age and endemic health issues.” Many older truckers decided to protect their health and retire early amid pandemic fears, and it will take a new incoming group of truck drivers to fill the vacancies.
CDL School & DMV Closures
COVID-19 forced many small businesses to shut down, both permanently and temporarily. CDL schools across the country have had to close their doors, significantly impacting the ability of prospective new drivers to obtain their CDL. Further complicating matters is the fact that at the height of the pandemic, over half (27) of states closed their State Driver Licensing Agencies (SDLA) while the remaining 23 states operated at limited capacity, severely slowing down processes.
The pandemic has had such a great impact that the Commercial Vehicle Training Association (CVTA) proposed governors “enact executive orders to recognize CDL training schools and SDLAs as ‘essential services’ while also granting the Secretary of Transportation temporary authority to also administer CLP or CDL testing due to SDLA closure.” CDL school and SDLA closures also put a pause on the training and licensing of an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 new drivers. Many states and localities continue to impose their own restrictions and lockdowns, making it difficult for new drivers to obtain their CDLs and join the depleted workforce.
The Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse
In January 2020, the government made it mandatory for all long-haul drivers to report to the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse for centralized management of driver substance abuse records. Any drivers violating the DAC’s substance abuse policies are immediately removed from the road, and their infractions are documented for five years for current and future employers to access. Drivers can return to the road upon completion of proper DAC return-to-duty protocol, including meeting with a substance abuse professional.
In 2020, the DAC removed more than 50,000 drivers for substance abuse infractions; less than 10% of “early violators” have returned to the workforce. This means the trucking industry can expect to lose around 50,000 jobs annually due to substance abuse, which would be a huge burden on supply chains across the country.
The trucking industry has been hit hard by COVID-19, experiencing record unemployment rates and a driver shortage across the industry. Along with other repercussions, carrier companies now face difficulties finding and retaining high-quality drivers, leading to disruptions in supply chains. In order to minimize costs and keep the industry afloat, there will have to be new, innovative ways to attract quality drivers and meet the growing transportation demand.
The start of 2021 comes with a new presidential administration in the United States as President-elect Joe Biden takes over as commander-in-chief on January 20. A change in national leadership is certain to have an impact on businesses and industries across the country; many wait with bated breath to see what changes the new administration ushers in.
The trucking industry is no different. After a year of pandemic-induced economic recession, some owners/operators are hopeful new leadership will return the economy back to pre-pandemic levels while others are wary of how their day-to-day lives will differ with a new president. At the moment, there are three significant issues in the trucking industry that could be affected by a new administration: America’s infrastructure, clean energy, and labor laws.
Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure
The president-elect has made it clear his administration plans to work toward rebuilding America’s infrastructure countrywide, including the roads and bridges that support the economy. According to trucking.org, when the House of Representatives met in 2020 to discuss the Invest in America Act, Bill Sullivan, the Executive Vice President of Advocacy for the American Trucking Associations (ATA) argued that “an injection of real capital into our degraded infrastructure will jumpstart the economy—creating hundreds of thousands of good-paying, private-sector jobs in blue-collar trades—and strengthen its commercial arteries to support long-term growth.”
Biden and the Democrats’ Senate majority (due to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote) could push legislation through that would invest billions of dollars into rebuilding our country’s infrastructure. The improved roads would benefit the trucking industry in the long-term, possibly saving billions of dollars; the American Transportation Institute estimates critical bottlenecks caused by poor infrastructure cost the transportation industry more than $74 billion annually. While improving the infrastructure is a great idea, the amount of construction required for the process would inevitably lead to more critical bottlenecks on driving routes—likely for a number of years.
Pushing Clean Energy
Clean energy has always been a point of contention within the trucking industry. Many drivers want to protect the environment, but legislative proposals to do so typically come at a great financial expense to owner/operators who would have to purchase new “green” trucks. Biden has already stated he plans to “put the United States on an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050,” which could mean electric vehicles for the transportation industry.
Going to net-zero emissions could have repercussions for the trucking industry. A major benefit is that electric trucks cost about 20% less in operating expenses compared to diesel trucks. The glaring downside, however, is the upfront costs for an electric truck are sizable. There are currently almost two million semi-trucks on the road today, which means an investment of over $300 billion just to purchase new electric trucks for the entire industry. The transportation industry will want to keep a keen eye on the future of Biden’s clean energy plan.
Changing Labor Laws
Another major difference to expect with the transition of power from Republicans to Democrats is a change in federal labor laws. The Biden administration is likely to put a pause on a recent Department of Labor rule that clarifies who is classified as an independent contractor and who is classified as an employee. Biden has also voiced plans to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. While this may not directly impact the salaries of drivers, it may increase the salary of non-driving employees in the industry, and carriers may reflect the increased expenses on drivers’ rates.
The Biden administration also strongly supports the adoption of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which “provisions instituting financial penalties on companies that interfere with workers’ organizing efforts, including firing or otherwise retaliating against workers.” The PRO Act would make it easier for truckers to unionize and bargain collectively. A final labor-related proposal from the Biden administration gives every employee 12 weeks of paid family medical leave mandated by the United States. Providing 12 weeks of paid family medical leave could impact the trucking industries if we see the expenses passed down from carrier companies.
As the new year begins with a shift in leadership, the United States continues to battle a pandemic and economic uncertainty, both of which have impacted the trucking industry. With President-elect Biden entering the White House, the next four years will likely bring about several notable changes across industries. The trucking industry, specifically, needs to be prepared for how these changes—in infrastructure, clean energy, and labor laws—will reshape the landscape of the transportation industry in both short-term and long-term ways.
As the coronavirus took its toll on the world in 2020, some industries—like the hospitality sector—were deeply impacted as government-mandated restrictions and virus-related fear prevented restaurants and bars from operating at maximum capacity. E-commerce, on the other hand, saw an enormous surge in demand with companies like Walmart and Amazon seeing record levels of revenue during the pandemic. The trucking industry, too, was not insulated from the impact of the pandemic. Large numbers of jobs lost and new challenges on the roads forced the industry to quickly adopt innovative new technologies in order to overcome the impact of the pandemic. Here are four technology trends emerging in the trucking industry that owner/operators should keep an eye on in the coming months.
1. Autonomous Vehicles
Almost straight out of a science-fiction movie, autonomous—or self-driving—vehicles are becoming a reality as manufacturers like Tesla begin producing more autonomous consumer vehicles. The trucking industry has become an early adopter of autonomous technology for their freight shipments due to an increased demand for shipping and a shortage of long-haul drivers—caused by economic instability and the tough nature of the trucking industry. Autonomous trucks manufactured by Waymo are already in use on the roads today in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and Waymo has plans of expanding into more states in the future. Proponents of autonomous vehicles argue that self-driving semi-trucks will eliminate human error behind the wheel, lower costs of shipping, and increase efficiency across the board for trucking companies. There is some trepidation about turning toward autonomous vehicles; some worry about accidents caused by self-driving trucks while others worry about the loss of critical jobs due to the addition of autonomous vehicles. If companies begin turning toward utilizing their own autonomous vehicles, it could have a negative impact on the number of available trucking jobs.
2. Smart Technology
Another important trend to watch out for in 2021 is the use of new and improved technologies to optimize the efficiency of long-haul shipping. Smart technologies on trucks improve safety for lane departure detection, lane keep assist, assisted braking, tire pressure monitoring, and even load stability. Furthermore, logistics companies are utilizing new technology for enhanced tracking and reporting to minimize human error and to have a better grasp of where their freight is at all times. The improved tracking is beneficial for planning when truckloads can be dropped off and picked up, as well as for providing customers with accurate updates. Alongside this technology, owner/operators can use new technology to locate cargo while on the road to reduce the amount of time spent on the road with an empty truck. With freight matching technology, drivers can ensure their trucks are always full and they are maximizing revenue capabilities at all times.
3. Data Analytics
Data analytics has made its way into pretty much every industry, from marketing to manufacturing to the trucking industry. Owner/operators use analytics to capture important data pertaining to their cargo, their trucks, and their routes; using this data, they can make valuable improvements to their performance, thus saving time and money and even helping them to drive more safely. According to Transmetrics, one study conducted by Supply Chain Management World found that “64 percent of executives think that big data and the insights it brings will have a disrupting power that can pivot the industry forever.” Data analytics also provide valuable insights into freight markets that help owner/operators uncover trends and patterns in the industry to pinpoint new opportunities and improve existing ones.
4. Electric Trucks
Electric trucks are making their way into the freight industry. Tesla already designed an electric semi-truck that can travel almost 500 miles on a single charge, and in 2019, Neuron EV released the TORQ, a fully electric semi-truck. With rising fuel costs, electric trucks can save owner/operators money in the long-term, improving their overall bottom line. Additionally, electric semi-trucks are much better for the environment, and companies have begun employing electric trucks to lower their carbon footprints. While electric trucks will not be replacing your entire fleet right away, they might eventually as states like California begin passing legislation to crack down on carbon emissions produced by the trucking industry.
As truckers begin preparing for 2021, it’s important to embrace the new technologies that are changing the long-haul industry for the better. While the trucking industry isn’t going anywhere, we’re seeing the emergence of new technologies that can benefit both drivers and carriers. Autonomous vehicles, smart technology, data analytics, and electric vehicles are reshaping the modern trucking industry, making the job easier, more accurate, and safer along the way.