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America's trucking industry is short by an all-time high of 80,000 drivers and the driver shortage could double within the next decade, according to new projections by the American Trucking Association.

"Since we last released an estimate of the shortage, there has been tremendous pressure on the driver pool," American Trucking Associations' Chief Economist Bob Costello said during the ATA's annual meeting in Nashville this week. "Increased demand for freight, pandemic-related challenges from early retirements, closed driving schools and DMVs, and other pressures are really pushing up demand for drives and subsequently the shortage."

Costello estimates the driver shortage could surpass 160,000 by 2030 as freight grows and more drivers retire from the job.

The driver shortage and supply chain interruptions it causes could worsen before the holidays if a federal mandate for employee vaccines is imposed and many drivers opt to leave their jobs. ATA estimates companies covered by the pending federal mandate for major employers could lose 37% of drivers through retirements, resignations and workers switching to smaller companies not covered by the requirements.

"Now placing vaccination mandates on employers, which in turn force employees to be vaccinated, will create a workforce crisis for our industry and the communities, families and businesses we serve," ATA President Chris Spear wrote in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget last week.

The pandemic has already caused many workers, including thousands of truck drivers, to change their careers. Max Farrell, co-founder and CEO of the Chattanooga-based WorkHound, said among the more than 50,000 truckers his company surveys and interacts with to get feedback for employers many are rethinking their jobs.

"A lot of workers across all industries took some time during the pandemic to rethink what kind of work they want to do and what work looks like in their life," Farrell said. "We had people leave the industry for health concerns or they just wanted to be closer to family so we are in this position where we simply don't have enough drivers to meet all of the demand right now and companies are struggling to find qualified people to fill those roles."

In order to keep up with demand over the next decade, the trucking industry will need to recruit nearly 1 million new drivers in order to close the gap caused by demand for freight, projected retirements and other issues.

"Because there are a number of factors driving the shortage, we have to take a number of different approaches," Costello said. "The industry is raising pay at five times the historic average, but this isn't just a pay issue. We have an aging workforce, a workforce that is overwhelmingly male and finding ways to address those issues is key to narrowing the shortage."

Farrell said more companies are using data collected by Workhound from drivers to better understand their needs and desires and to do more to retain the drivers on their staffs amid the tightest labor market in the six years that Farrell has operated Workhound.

The American Trucking Association is pushing to allow younger people enter the industry through the Drive-SAFE Act, and is doing more to recruit women and minority drivers.

"By reaching out to women and minorities will open this career path – one of the few with a path to a middle class lifestyle that doesn't require a college degree – we can put a significant dent in the shortage," Costello said.

At the Chattanooga-based Covenant Logistics, company president Joey Hogan said labor and supply shortages are pushing up the costs of shipping and he expects that inflationary pressure to continue into next year.

"We continue to anticipate cost headwinds in driver and non-driver compensation and benefits along with equipment and parts supply," Hogan told industry analysts during the company's most recent quarterly earnings call. "Inflation is definitely affecting transportation and logistics! On the bright side, we expect to be able to pass through cost increases to customers that value our services as we expect the supply-demand imbalance to continue for the next few quarters."

Shipping delays caused by highway congestion, labor shortages and supply shortfalls are creating bottlenecks in delivering some products and are pushing up the price of many goods.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday he is talking with other governors about deregulation steps that might help open up clogged supply lines.

"We haven't made decisions yet, but we're gathering that information to see if there are ways that we can remove restrictions on the supply chain, whether it's trucking, rail or shipping, so we can speed up those processes," Lee said. "We don't have anything to report yet, but we're working on that because it is very important."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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