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Pandemic and supply chain issues amplify trucking industry woes

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With holiday shopping season here, the nationwide truck driver shortage — which has been further amplified by worldwide supply chain challenges and the ongoing pandemic — could mean online shoppers may want to click the checkout button on their orders sooner rather than later.

“We’ve been spoiled prior to the pandemic of placing an order today and receiving it in 24 hours,” said Neal Kedzie, president of the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association. “That is not a reasonable expectation at the current time. I think we have to be more realistic on what we expect.”

Take an aerial tour of the completed homeless encampment at Dairy Drive in Madison in early November 2021, just prior to move-in.

Like many industries in Wisconsin, workforce challenges in trucking were present long before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. However, many in the aging trucking workforce — the average truck driver is 49 years old — retired early due to public health concerns, while the pandemic also stymied new talent entering the field through the temporary closure of many commercial license schools, Kedzie said.

“On the back end we had retiring drivers, and on the front end we had a bottleneck created by the pandemic for new drivers coming into the workforce,” he said.

Supply chain challenges have further exacerbated industry woes, with carriers unable to move product piling up in warehouses. To make matters worse, the industry is facing a shortage of trucks as well due in part to the worldwide shortage of microchips, which are a key component in commercial trucks.

“We’ve got a perfect storm that’s been created with all these factors, and the public keeps on buying, but it’s difficult for the supply chain to deliver,” Kedzie said.

In October, the nationwide driver shortage was estimated to have reached an all-time high of 80,000 unfilled positions, said Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Truck Association.

“Since we last released an estimate of the shortage, there has been tremendous pressure on the driver pool,” Costello said in a statement. “Increased demand for freight, pandemic-related challenges from early retirements, closed driving schools and DMVs, and other pressures are really pushing up demand for drivers and subsequently the shortage.”

If current trends persist, the association predicts the shortage could surpass 160,000 drivers by 2030 and the industry will have to recruit nearly 1 million new drivers over the next decade in order to replace retiring drivers.

While many trucking companies have turned to wage increases and sign-on bonuses to draw talent, Kedzie said that alone is not doing enough to fill the industry’s needs.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average weekly earnings for general freight and long-distance truck drivers has risen steadily for more than a year, increasing from less than $935 per week in January 2019 to $1,136 this September.

Kedzie said many companies are trying to expand the workforce through other potential labor pools like women, who make up about 47% of the nation’s workforce but account for just about 7% of the trucking industry. Kedzie said companies also are expanding outreach into minority communities for potential employees.

One component in the federal infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden earlier this month would create an apprenticeship program that would allow drivers age 18-20 to haul freight across state lines. Previously, individuals had to be at least 21 years old be a long-haul driver.


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