Ahe global trucking industry is facing a serious driver shortage that shows no signs of easing. So what is causing the crisis? And what can be done to remedy it?
To find out, TSI magazine spoke to experts on both sides of the issue.
One of them is Stephen Cotton. He is general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). It is a global union federation representing 18.5 million workers throughout the transport industry.
The second expert is Umberto de Pretto. He is secretary general of the International Road Transport Union (IRU). It represents more than 3.5 million transportation companies — bus, coach, truck and taxi — in over 100 countries.
Here’s the interesting part: Although the tone and focus of these two experts’ views on the global drivers’ shortage are understandably different, there is a general consensus between them on many aspects of this issue. Here’s what they had to tell us, in an exclusive TSI roundtable discussion:
TSI: Just how serious is the shortage of transport truck drivers?
Umberto de Pretto: Chronic commercial truck driver shortages are getting worse, threatening the stability and continuity of logistics and supply chains.
Millions of positions are unfilled. But of greater concern is the fact that the trucking industry has an aging driver population. In most regions, drivers under 25 are a small minority, just above 5% of the total truck driver population.
In the U.S. and Europe, older drivers make up around a third of drivers. Many are set to retire in the next five to ten years. With the rate of replacement being much lower, the shortage of drivers could worsen significantly in the coming years. Action is needed right now to prevent the current crisis from worsening and triggering an economic and social catastrophe.
Road transport operators are doing more than their share to improve the driver profession. Governments and authorities now need to step up, especially to improve parking infrastructure, training access, and encourage more women and young people to get behind the wheel.
Stephen Cotton: The so-called truck driver shortage is rapidly becoming a global problem, one that is likely to continue to deteriorate unless assertive measures are taken. The key here is that we are facing not so much a shortage of actual drivers, but poor pay and harsh conditions making it impossible to retain a skilled and diverse workforce.
In 2022, the IRU’s annual Global Driver Shortage Report reported 2.6 million truck driver jobs unfilled the previous year. Studies this year show that 80,000 drivers are needed to fill jobs in the United States, 25,000 in Canada and 76,000 in the U.K., with these numbers expected to grow. Some say as much as 35% of cargo may go undelivered in Japan by 2030 due to shortages.
The problem is more severe in developed countries than in some developing countries where there are lower barriers to entry and often a proliferation of self-employed and informal drivers. But the issues at the heart of driver shortages — poor pay, long hours, and unsafe conditions — exist everywhere and will likely lead to more shortages even in places that are not currently experiencing them, until governments and companies get serious about lifting standards across the industry.
TSI: When did this start to become a problem? What role did COVID play?
Stephen Cotton: The Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath put truck driver shortages in the spotlight. During the early part of the pandemic shutdowns, dropping freight volumes and closed borders led some trucking companies to lay off workers, while other workers left their jobs due to the uncertainty caused by the shutdowns and unsafe conditions. This was compounded by supply chain disruptions together with increased consumer demand, which made the impact of shortages all the more acute.
The fact is, however, that the pandemic shed a light on and exacerbated what is in fact a decades-old trend in many countries. It can be traced to deregulation of the road transport industry in the 1980s and 1990s, which has resulted in business models based on excessive subcontracting and cost competition, increased precarity and the deterioration of pay and conditions, and the decline of unionization throughout the industry, particularly in western countries.
Umberto de Pretto: The shortage of drivers is a chronic issue. We’ve been reporting and analyzing driver shortages since 2019, producing the only survey and report of its kind.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which brought some well-deserved attention to this critical issue, led to a dip in driver shortages, as transport operations were significantly impacted. But then there was a jump again from 2020 to 2021 as operations resumed. In Europe, driver shortages increased by 42% from 2020 to 2021.
Covid-19 also revealed the inability of global intergovernmental institutions to implement harmonized procedures, and national governments to eagerly implement their own uncoordinated measures, particularly at borders.
Instead of letting our drivers cross borders without having to get out of their trucks, they made them bunch together and follow futile, erratic national procedures that actually put them in greater danger.
Of many incidents around the world, one notably was the fiasco which left many thousands of our drivers stranded at the U.K.-French channel crossings just before Christmas 2020, that made it difficult to retain our dedicated drivers. Up to 10,000 trucks were stuck at that one border alone, moving slowly through a gridlocked Dover towards France. Alarmingly, this did not account for thousands of other trucks stuck elsewhere in the U.K., waiting for the green light to approach Dover.
Even the United Nations Secretary-General recognized that we have global UN instruments at our disposal, such as e-CMR and eTIR, that would have permitted our drivers to stay safely in their trucks while border authorities processed everything electronically.
Hopefully governments won’t repeat the same mistakes in future public health emergencies. International institutions appear to have learned this lesson.
Following our lobbying efforts, a Joint Action Group was established — at a meeting with the Director-General of the International Labour Organization, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, and the heads of IRU and other international transport organizations, including the International Transport Workers’ Federation — to review the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on transport workers and networks in December 2021.
In response, the Joint Action Group developed a set of 23 recommendations to provide more effective means of action to the ongoing issues affecting the transport sector during the Covid-19 pandemic and in similar public health emergencies of international concern.
TSI: What factors are causing the shortage?
Umberto de Pretto: Several factors are contributing to the shortage of drivers. Some of the main causes include a lack of trained and qualified professional drivers, insufficient safe and secure parking areas, challenging working conditions (such as having to wait not hours, but sometimes days and weeks to cross a border), the cost of becoming a professional driver, and difficulties attracting women and young people to the profession.
Let’s take the lack of safe and secure parking for example. In the entire European Union, only about 7,000, less than 3%, of existing parking places in the EU, are in areas certified to be safe and secure, according to a 2019 study. This is simply unacceptable.
While the number of safe and secure parking areas has slightly increased since then, we continue to urge policymakers to provide additional support to improve conditions in the sector by advocating for EU-funding to build new, and upgrade existing, safe and secure parking areas.
In September 2021, the European Commission launched a call for proposals to access EUR 750 million in Connecting Europe Facility funding to improve the network of safe and secure truck parking areas across the European Union.
IRU played an important role in obtaining this funding by extensively lobbying for more measures to improve conditions in the commercial road transport sector.
But at least the EU has some secure parking areas. In many parts of the world, this is an alien concept. Drivers are expected to stop and park where they can, with security not always being an option.
How can we attract young people and women to our profession, particularly as an international driver, when days or weeks of waiting time awaits them at borders, and there is no guarantee that they can stop and rest in complete security? Governments need to remedy these obvious impediments for us to be able to attract young people and women.
Governments also need to understand that drivers are the heart of the trucking industry, which is the backbone of any economy. We can’t expect to continue attracting new people to this critical profession when the unfit conditions, created by governments, will further exacerbate the crisis. Drivers need to be treated as the real-life heroes that they are.
Stephen Cotton: In the ITF we don’t talk about a shortage of drivers, we talk about a shortage of decent work and good jobs.
Some experts talk about “a recruitment and retention problem”. In recent decades, deregulation and fragmentation have been coupled with the concentration of power in the hands of multinational shippers or customer companies who profit through subcontracting and low-cost tendering. This creates incredible competitive pressures and has resulted in the deterioration in pay and conditions, and road safety.
Truck drivers work for extremely long hours, are often fatigued, and have great difficulty maintaining stable family lives. A lot of the time they work, such as time waiting to pick up or drop off loads or doing maintenance, goes unpaid. A lack of adequate rest areas, poor infrastructure and exposure to violence and harassment — particularly in developing economies — increases the health and safety risks and makes it impossible for drivers to drive safely or maintain a sense of dignity at work.
As a result, the industry has a terrible time attracting young people and women and retaining trained drivers. We see high turnover rates and an aging workforce around the world.
Across Europe and in many parts of the world where cross-border truck driving takes place,
companies have turned to the exploitation of migrant workers from other countries to keep costs down. The conditions these drivers work under — including unfair deductions to their pay, delayed payments, non-transparent contracts and living out of the cabs of their vehicles for months on end — amount to a human rights crisis with cases of modern slavery and human trafficking staining the industry.
TSI: What impact is the driver shortage having on trucking companies and the supply chain?
Umberto de Pretto: Driver shortages are limiting trucking companies, preventing them from meeting demand for their services, and increasing uncertainty in the supply chain. Knock-on effects ripple quickly through supply chains, affecting consumers and businesses. This is exposing already stressed economies and communities to higher risk of inflation, social mobility issues and supply chain meltdown.
Stephen Cotton: This “shortage of good jobs” or “recruitment and retention problems” is bad for everyone — shippers, trucking companies and consumers who need the goods transported by road. It leads to a lack of business predictability and delays. It has contributed to supply chain bottlenecks resulting in a vicious cycle where existing truck drivers are working for even longer hours under even greater pressure. What is more, the conditions which many truck drivers work under constitute a human rights and safety risk for the businesses they work for and the companies whose goods they carry.
TSI: What could be done to alleviate this shortage?
Umberto de Pretto: Each region and country requires tailored solutions, but, in many cases, key measures include enhancing access to safe and secure parking areas and resting facilities, improving the treatment of drivers at delivery sites, using existing global instruments to expedite border crossings, reducing the “school-to-wheel” gap, and helping drivers spend more time at home through new operating models, such as “trailer drop and swap” services.
Two initiatives that we are leading right now include our charter on the treatment of drivers and a new three-point plan we launched earlier this year together with unions.
The primary objective of the driver charter is to improve the treatment of drivers at loading and unloading sites and thereby improve working conditions, increase operational efficiency, and ultimately, contribute to making the driving profession more attractive. The charter is a universal decalogue for shippers to commit to a series of basic actions to develop trust between drivers and logistics actors.
In June, together with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, we launched a new plan to help fix driver shortages. The plan outlines action for the United Nations, national governments and the industry and aims to ease driver shortages and transport labor market imbalances, ensure decent working conditions and standards for drivers working outside of their home country, and simplify and enforce rules for workers and employers.
Stephen Cotton: We at the ITF have been very clear about the solution to this problem.
Trucking jobs must be good, safe jobs, where workers’ human rights and dignity are protected, where they can make a decent living and drive safely while being confident that they will have adequate time to spend with family and loved ones. To make this possible, governments, shippers and transport companies must all take responsibility and work with trade unions to set and enforce fair and safe labor standards throughout road transport supply chains.
The ITF has proposed two ways in which this can be done.
First, we have developed a model for worker-led monitoring and enforcement of labor standards in road transport supply chains in Europe called Road Transport Due Diligence. In this model, multinational companies that contract for road transport services voluntarily cooperated with a union-established independent monitoring body to monitor compliance with a set of agreed standards and fix breaches.
Secondly, the ITF and its affiliated unions, together with responsible industry stakeholders, have been calling on governments to implement what we call Safe Rates legislation. These laws establish legally binding systems whereby unions and other industry stakeholders — including the shipping companies at the top of road transport supply chains — negotiate and set fair and safe standards for pay and conditions. Importantly, Safe Rates systems, along with other forms of supply chain regulation like chain of responsibility and mandatory due diligence laws, put obligations on the biggest companies who ship their goods — not just trucking companies — to ensure that pay and conditions for drivers are fair and mean that drivers will want to continue to come to work.
On 22 September, ITF released a call to employers, governments and shippers globally to cooperate with us in these ways to ensure that road transport supply chains are fair, safe, and sustainable.
TSI: What is being done? Is it enough?
Umberto de Pretto: Various solutions are being pursued in different regions, including the solutions listed above. But much more needs to be done.
Some measures that must be pursued in most regions include setting the minimum driving age at 18, with training from 17, subsidizing license and training costs for new drivers, and building more safe and secure parking areas.
I’ll just highlight one example here: the unacceptably high costs involved in becoming a truck driver. In France, for example, a truck license costs EUR 5,300, more than three times the average minimum monthly salary.
Financial support from governments and companies to cover license costs is desperately needed.
Let me repeat, our drivers are real-life heroes. They need to be treated as such by everyone.
That’s why this year’s IRU Grand Prix d’Honneur was awarded to all professional bus, coach, taxi and truck drivers in the world. It recognizes their collective bravery, courage and dedication in continuing to serve through the pandemic, conflicts and natural disaster rescue and relief operations, despite risks to their own lives.
Stephen Cotton: Governments, industry associations and companies globally have begun various initiatives or put forth proposals to address the driver shortage issue.
Some of these — the ones that will start to improve pay and conditions and re-regulate the industry — are positive. For example, the Biden Administration’s Trucking Action Plan, a bill introduced last year to remove the exemption for overtime pay for truck drivers, are important first steps in the U.S.
In Australia, the federal government has introduced transport reform legislation, which would establish a body to set and enforce fair and safe standards covering all supply chain actors in road transport. This is also very promising.
However, a lot of initiatives taken are focused on information-sharing and industry promotion. This sort of project will not have an impact without fundamental changes to the structure of the industry and the conditions under which truck drivers work.
There are also some initiatives that go beyond being ineffective and are dangerous. The European Commission is pursuing a proposal to revise the directive on driving licenses, which would allow member states to reduce the minimum age to be licensed as a truck driver to 17. Putting young drivers behind the wheel will not address the root causes of the shortage while exacerbating safety risks.
Some industry associations have been calling for, and some governments pursuing, a relaxation of immigration rules to facilitate the entry of more migrant workers into the industry to fill vacancies. This is a complicated issue that must be treated with care.
The ITF supports equal standards for all drivers and equal union protections regardless of their nationality. Employers’ main interest in using migrant workers is to keep labor costs down, which they can do because regulation, monitoring and enforcement are often weak. Addressing root causes related to industry structure and poor labor standards should be the main focus of long-term solutions.
TSI Will the current driver shortage help spur the acceptance of driverless autonomous trucks? Do they exist yet?
Umberto de Pretto: We are still a long way from having widespread adoption of autonomous trucks. As the representative of the industry and transport companies, we embrace the potential of autonomous vehicles, but it’s a long-term journey.
Autonomous vehicles offer great potential for not only the driver shortage issue, but also other challenges such as decarbonization, efficiency and traffic congestion.
Regardless of the pace of automation, the road transport sector should continue to offer good career opportunities. Road transport automation will require a just transition. We need to ensure that the sector will continue to provide rich career opportunities, both driver and non-driver jobs, and assist people in transitioning from driver to non-driver jobs.
There are already some interesting innovative projects out there, such as the European Union’s All Weather Autonomous Real logistics operations and Demonstrations (AWARD) project, trying to speed up the transition.
The AWARD project aims to accelerate the deployment of connected and automated freight transport solutions across Europe. Trial operations are being conducted in adverse weather conditions, in both closed areas and mixed traffic, to assess the safety and efficiency of automated commercial freight operations.
We have taken a lead role in this project to identify market opportunities, define new business models, and analyze regulatory frameworks. These three areas will be essential for the deployment of driverless heavy-duty vehicles.
Stephen Cotton: There is no doubt that the driver shortage is spurring efforts to develop driverless trucks.
There are many technologies that can be deployed, from driver assistive technologies to platooning that may also be part of the mix. However, there are big issues surrounding adequate testing, regulatory change, international standards, social acceptance and particularly the cybersecurity of driverless systems.
We know there are systems being tested across the world in trucking and with buses and cars too. It may be that within a few years one or some of these will become commercially viable and pass the regulatory and other barriers. However, trucking is a complex system, and it will not be possible to make the sector 100% autonomous in the short term.
Given this reality, it isn’t clear how autonomous trucks would fit into the existing system. How would manual and non-manual fleets interact? What’s the ideal way to integrate AVs in a mixed fleet? How would companies recruit drivers if the future of the profession seems in doubt?
Operators and some governments are looking at AV technology as a solution to addressing systemic problems and root causes, but is this viable? We can’t say how long it will take to transform factory production to AV technology or to train the workers needed to operate and maintain AVs. How many new factories will be needed to churn out enough trucks to make a real difference? How would small or medium operators buy more expensive AV trucks? It will likely take years to figure this all out.
A faster and more secure way to resolve the driver shortage is to take the steps to change the structure of the industry and make it a more attractive sector to work in.
TSI What will this situation look like in five years’ time, if nothing is done?
Stephen Cotton: Without systematic solutions we are likely to see a dwindling road transport workforce and driver shortages in more and more countries in the next 5 to 10 years. In countries that already have severe shortages we will see more and more supply chain problems and delays in freight deliveries. From a labor perspective, our economies will lose out on the opportunity to create good jobs and develop a workforce that is well trained, diverse, and sustainable.
Umberto de Pretto: With the rate of replacement being much lower, the shortage of truck drivers could worsen significantly in the coming years if no action is taken right now, exposing economies and communities to higher risks of supply chain interruptions and freight rate increases.
We know what needs to be done. There’s a good understanding of the challenges and possible solutions. It’s now time for us to act and get more young drivers and women behind the wheel.