Retailers battle a trucker shortage ahead of the holidays

Not only is the US running out of just about everything, but even when goods come in, there aren’t enough drivers to get them where they need to go.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Retailers can’t catch a break ahead of the holidays. Not only is the US running out of just about everything, but even when goods come in, there aren’t enough drivers to get them where they need to go.

It’s a problem that was in the making prior to the pandemic. But supply-chain issues amid the busiest time of the retail year have put things into overdrive. In 2018, the trucking industry was short by 60,800 drivers, and the American Trucking Association predicts that number will go up to 100,000 by 2023.

What happened? Drivers are tired, logistics experts told us—that’s been the biggest challenge. Port closures across the US and China, for example, have created substantial backlogs at customs, forcing truckers to make multiple long-distance trips in a single day.

“They’ve all been asked to do so much during the last 18 months,” Piyush Golia, president of PCA Group, a global distribution company, told Retail Brew. “A sense of fatigue is stepping in between all the deliveries, whether it’s a small parcel or even long.”

Drivers are increasingly seeking better work-life balance and flexible schedules, explained Dave Gilbertson, chief customer officer at UKG, a workforce management company. That’s led to many long-haul drivers now seeking the more adaptable lifestyle of “last-mile” delivery jobs, added Robert O’Dwyer, a logistics industry principal also at UKG. 

  • The industry has struggled to recruit women, who only make up 6.7% of long-haul drivers, for similar reasons.

“This movement is being driven by the ability to be at home each night, as well as higher wages being offered to short-haul and delivery drivers that have made these jobs comparable in terms of total compensation to traditional over-the-road jobs,” he said.

Health and safety concerns have emerged as another major factor as the Delta variant surges across the country, noted Gilbertson.

“It will take a high degree of comfort in an employer’s healthcare and workplace safety practices among folks waiting on the sidelines before they are ready to re-enter the workforce,” he said. “They don’t want to get sick when they come to work.”

Long road ahead: The dearth has been compounded by an aging workforce. The average retirement age of commercial drivers in the US is 55 years old, meaning people are leaving the industry faster than new drivers can be hired and recruited, O’Dwyer explained.

Add the fact that training new drivers to replace those retiring can take “at least 12 to 18 months,” per Gilbertson. “These are not folks you can just hire off the street,” he explained. “Delivery drivers have to go through a training process and it takes a while.”

Companies that want to retain their existing driver workforce should prepare to offer perks like flexible schedules, Gilberston noted. O’Dwyer also suggested allowing new recruits to “utilize vehicles that do not require a commercial driver’s license, enabling a broader selection of possible candidates.”

Final countdown: As for where things stand now, well...retailers are racing to fill both physical (and virtual) shelves ahead of the holidays.

One last-ditch effort to get stuff on time is a “shared truckload,” suggested Chris Pickett, chief strategy officer at Flock Freight—which essentially enables different companies to share trailer space in a single full truckload. That can help retailers “expedite transit times” and potentially “outmaneuver the competition,” he said, thus capitalizing on the $$ that’s already being spent.

The biggest takeaway, though: Whatever solutions retailers are thinking about now...they should have been done yesterday.

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