Our annual outlook analysis for the coming year has tapped drivers as the one issue that will overshadow all others for trucking. The question is, how will you deal with it?

It’s widely anticipated that qualified drivers are going to be in short supply, especially for heavy-duty, long-haul fleets. The individual factors behind that shortage have been widely recognized for some time, but for a variety of reasons they will converge in 2013 to create a situation that can no longer be ignored.

First, there are the demographic realities. Drivers from the Baby Boomer generation are retiring at a faster rate than the potential pool of 21-year-olds is growing. Trucking isn’t alone in facing this imbalance between old and young. While the economic downturn has softened the effect for many industries as many Boomers are compelled to work longer and defer retirement, the physical rigors of driving a long-haul truck means that isn’t a practical option for many.

Not only is the potential pool of new workers smaller, but trucking poses additional barriers that encourage people to look elsewhere. Training and licensing requirements have been significantly tightened, making it harder and more expensive to get the required commercial driver’s license.

Closer monitoring of driver behavior and hours of service has ended the “freedom of the road” image that once attracted some. Instead, the image that now comes to mind when someone explores the option of driving a truck is Big Brother.

While modern communications technology has softened a driver’s isolation from family and friends, a lifestyle that requires weeks away from home and long periods parked alongside the road is just not attractive to many.

And finally, despite the high unemployment rate, the job’s pay scale is generally too low for many to motivate them to overlook those barriers. There are other options that may not pay more, but don’t come with the negatives of a truck driver’s daily life.

None of this is new, but the poor economy with its resulting lower freight volumes has kept the driver shortage from being a crippling problem. Until now.

The American Trucking Assns. (ATA) estimates that in our current slow-growth economy with only modest freight growth, the industry has about 25,000 fewer drivers than it needs. Most economists predict that growth will remain slow in the first part of this year, but then accelerate and continue that acceleration for the next few years.

Economists who track truck freight say that even with only continued modest growth, freight capacity will tighten considerably this year. And ATA says fleets will need to find 100,000 new drivers a year to service that growth.

Pundits, analysts and everyone else with an opinion have talked about the driver shortage for years, offering warnings but little in the way of specific solutions. And if we’re honest, fleets haven’t really found a way to positively address the situation beyond trying to steal their competitors’ drivers.

I am certainly among those who’ve done a lot of that talking, but it’s time to move beyond talk. So here’s my challenge. Email me at jmele@fleetowner.com with your ideas on what fleets can do to bring in and keep new drivers, even those ideas that at first hearing sound unrealistic or wildly impractical. I’ll pass on the most practical, the most intriguing and just the most thought-provoking to all the fleet managers, executives and owners who read this magazine. Business as usual isn’t going to cut it anymore, so let’s see if we can shake things up a bit.