Long-haul trucking's days may be numbered.
Trucking itself isn't going anywhere - in fact it's projected to grab a bigger share of the transportation market, which includes rail, air, water and ground transport, according to an American Trucking Associations forecast.
But the weekslong trips on which Chattanooga-based U.S. Xpress and crosstown rival Covenant Transport built their business are destined to fade away, as demographics change the face of truck driving, U.S. Xpress co-Chairman Max Fuller predicted Friday.
Just to fulfill its current obligations, the industry must hire 150,000 additional drivers immediately, Fuller said. If the economy grows by just 2 percent, the additional demand for goods could result in a shortage of 400,000 drivers as increasing retail orders strain the system.
"If the economy turns around in six months, we are in deep trouble because it could take four years to fix this issue," Fuller said.
The average age of truck drivers is now 48, and a fifth of all drivers are projected to leave the industry over the next 15 years, ATA statistics show.
New drivers aren't showing up to take their place.
"The old mossback driver that has driven freight all over the country is going away," Fuller said. "The next generation is going to be a challenge."
In the old days, drivers would be gone for weeks at a time on cross-country trips to California and back. Popular demand for more time at home has reduced the average trip to three or four days, he said.
"That's not good enough for the next generation," Fuller said. "Now, they're going to want to be home every other night, or even every night."
It could require shorter hops to regional hubs along with higher wages to attract workers away from other industries that typically send employees home every evening, officials predict.
But U.S. Xpress is trying new techniques to bring more young workers into the fold that may hold down short-term costs.
A partnership with Chattanooga State Community College allows students to train for 12 weeks, and virtually guarantees them a job on graduation, said Claude Ramsey, deputy governor of Tennessee.
"Part of our success has been our ability to say to a company or industry, 'If you come to Hamilton County or Chattanooga, we'll come up with a program and train your employees,'" Ramsey said.
Still, it's not enough. While 60 percent of student fees are subsidized through lottery revenue, more money is needed to meet the demand for drivers, trucking officials said.
Efforts to goad federal lawmakers into laying out money for additional training, however, have fallen on deaf ears, said Pat Quinn, co-chairman of U.S. Xpress.
As a result, the transportation industry may have no choice but to raise salaries, then raise freight rates. That would hit consumers in the wallet.
"You almost have to have a crisis where there's no more toilet paper on the shelves," Quinn said. "It's disgusting to find that we can't do the right thing. These are investments."