By John Gallagher of FreightWaves.com,
The trucking industry is desperate to get drivers into seats at a time when the supply chain needs them most, but a variety of factors is stalling the industry’s ability to gain traction.
Chief among those factors is the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse. Since January 2020 when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration began recording substance abuse violations in the clearinghouse database, over 91,000 drivers have been taken off the road for testing positive or refusing to take a test. That number is expected to hit 100,000 before the end of the year.
While this is considered proof that the clearinghouse is doing its job — keeping unsafe drivers off the road — it is also increasing pressure on carriers trying to deal with unprecedented freight demand.
“We’ve lost, at least temporarily, 44,000 drivers so far in 2021 to drug or alcohol violations, which really stings when freight is sitting at the dock waiting to be picked up,” P. Sean Garney, the Scopelitis Transportation Consulting co-director, told FreightWaves.
“With only 21% of drivers disqualified from driving a [commercial motor vehicle] taking the steps necessary to get back behind the wheel, the industry needs to continue to find creative ways to fill seats.”
Prolonging the crisis?
Some contend that the inability of more would-be and current drivers to pass a drug test is exacerbated by an increasing number of states legalizing marijuana. The clearinghouse has consistently revealed marijuana to be the top substance identified in positive drug tests (see chart).
Karen Goodpaster, manager at St. Louis-based Apollo Express, said that to the extent the side effects of the clearinghouse could potentially prolong the recovery of the supply chain crisis, “that would be a negative,” she told FreightWaves. “But there’s a lot of other things that are having a negative effect as well. Parts to fix trucks are in short supply, which means trucks have to be parked.” She also said drivers are moving from over-the-road to local delivery due to changing purchasing patterns by shippers and consumers.
“But I don’t want anyone doing drugs in my trucks. If [the clearinghouse] keeps one driver off the road and from killing a family, that’s a positive.”
The shortfall in drivers resulting from closing drug loopholes comes against a backdrop of worsening driver shortage generally. The ATA estimates that in 2021 the difference between the number of drivers currently in the market and the number actually needed based on freight demand will hit a record high of just over 80,000. That number has ratcheted up from 60,000 drivers estimated by ATA at the beginning of 2020. The inability to pass a drug test has been cited by ATA as one of the primary factors behind the shortage of drivers.
Other factors cited by ATA that are reducing the pool of available drivers include:
High average age of current drivers, which leads to a high number of retirements.
Women making up only 7% of all drivers, well below their representation in the total workforce.
Infrastructure issues such as a lack of truck parking spots, which causes drivers to stop driving earlier than they need to so they can get a spot for the night, and congestion, which limits drivers’ ability to safely and efficiently make deliveries.
Truck driver training schools training far fewer drivers than normal in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Another issue that could pressure driver capacity — and hinder the ability of drivers to tackle supply chain recovery efforts — is the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for companies that have 100 or more employees. The ATA has warned that unless the industry is given a temporary, short-term exemption from that requirement, half of the 50% of truck drivers estimated to be unvaccinated would leave the industry rather than get a shot.
“These proposed [vaccine] requirements, however well intentioned, are going to continue to put further disruptions and strain on the supply chain,” Truckload Carriers Association President Jim Ward told Fox News last week.
To fill the driver void in the short term to deal with the crisis, the FMCSA is working with the Biden administration and state motor vehicle departments to expedite issuance of CDLs. A U.S. Department of Commerce supply chain panel recently recommended coordinating with the Department of Defense, ports and trucking companies to immediately provide active military troops volunteer and paid truck driver jobs to help alleviate congestion at the ports.
Garney pointed out that more carriers are pursuing apprenticeship programs or developing new training curricula to onboard drivers with less experience.
“Many in the industry are looking toward younger drivers to fill the gap as well,” he said. “Whether that’s segmenting intrastate freight to take advantage of less stringent intrastate rules or advocating for a federal apprenticeship program, there’s no doubt that tapping into drivers between 18 and 21 will be a part of the plan.”
Hiring remains difficult
Recruiting drivers, however, remains one of the biggest challenges for many carriers — for the fifth year in a row, driver workforce issues once again topped the rankings of the American Transportation Research Institute’s most recent top trucking industry issues list. Phil Byrd, CEO of Bulldog Hiway Express, knows this as much as anyone.
The Charleston, South Carolina-based carrier has been advertising every week for driving positions that pay $100,000 per year — and the jobs allow drivers to be home every night and on weekends, with full benefits. “Recruiting and retention is as difficult as I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve been in this business for over 40 years,” Byrd told FreightWaves. He pointed to the clearinghouse as a major factor.
“I can’t quote the number but it’s a high percentage of applicants that don’t get called back — there’s no question that we’re having to turn away more applicants. It’s also a big cost to the industry — those tests don’t come free. But it’s all part of the price of making sure we have safe roads.”