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There's actually a truck driver shortage in the United States.

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I'm surprised there are fewer than a million truck drivers in the United States.

Google the term “truck driver shortage” and you’ll find an endless string of articles from various local newspapers lamenting the lack of people willing to carry the load in this essential link of the supply chain. In the U.S., the shortfall is estimated at around 50,000 drivers, and age distribution of the 850,000 currently on the road suggests it will get significantly worse in the next five to ten years.

The problem is not new. Bill Graves, who just retired as CEO of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), recently wrote: “When I first came to the American Trucking Associations in 2003, among our industry’s top concerns were diesel costs, the driver shortage, insurance costs and security”. Much has changed since 2003, but the top of Graves’ current list of challenges is still a driver shortage. Why?

The root of the problem may be that too many supply chain executives still see trucking as an undifferentiated commodity bought almost exclusively on the basis of cost.

Self-driving trucks might not cut into the need for last-mile trucker jobs.

And yet, turnover for full truckload fleets runs in the 90% range, which means most drivers quit in their first year. Maybe the combination of homesickness, licensing and regulatory hassle, financial responsibility and aggravation with road congestion merits a raise.

Not Just a Job, but a Career

The same ATA data source that flags a barely breakeven labor market among long-haul full truckload carriers says the exact opposite for less-than-truckload (LTL) fleets. Turnover in the first quarter of 2016 for LTL fleets was only 8%. Something is obviously much better about these jobs.

Looking at it from the customer back may point to a solution. LTL drivers generally work closer to home, often have regular customer drop locations and have both an incentive and an opportunity to develop a long-term career. They live and work closer to the customer.

The highest customer touch jobs in trucking may be in the parcel business, where earnings at UPS, for example, often exceed $70,000 per year. For many customers the UPS driver is like part of the family, with a rhythm not unlike the milkman of old. It’s even the career for sitcom character Doug in The King of Queens.

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