A growing shortage of truck drivers will force the trucking industry and the shippers it serves to rethink the pay scales and working environment of commercial vehicle operators in the very near future, according to several industry experts.

Data compiled by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) indicates that in less than a decade, annual freight demand will require the services of some 2 million truck drivers, yet if the current shortage persists, only 1.7 million will be working in trucking – a shortage of some 300,000 personnel.

Right now, ATA thinks the bulk of the shortage is confined to long-haul, over-the-road TL carriers, but that private fleets and LTL carriers may begin to experience difficulty finding, hiring and keeping drivers, too, as regulatory changes to hours-of-service (HOS) and Compliance Safety Accountably (CSA) program; all in combination with the industry growth, retirements and drivers leaving the industry, will exacerbate the shortage.

“On average, trucking will need to recruit nearly 100,000 new drivers every year to keep up with demand for drivers, with nearly two-thirds of the need coming from industry growth and retirements,” warned Bob Costello, ATA’s chief economist, in a white paper on the subject published late last year.

In comments made at the Great American Trucking Show this week, Bill Graves, ATA’s president and CEO, said improved compensation is a “key factor” in terms of solving the driver shortage now and in the future.

Dave Ross, managing director of the global transportation and logistics research group at Wall Street firm Stifel Nicolaus & Co., added during a recent conference call that, at the end of the day, drivers may be a bigger limitation on capacity than the balance sheets of the trucking companies they work for.

“We certainly think that driver pay is going to go higher,” he explained. “Driver pay has trailed inflation for the better part of 33 years now since deregulation. The driver pool has aged considerably and nobody new is coming in to replace those retiring.”

Ross said it basically boils down to “just pure economics” in his view. “If you pay them more money, you will get more drivers,” he stressed. “Our contention is that the driver pay right now for the industry is so far below market that a drastic increase is needed in order to attract anybody new. Increasing pay 5% is not going to solve anything. We think that driver pay needs to go up 40%-50% from where it is today to really attract anybody new into the industry.”

However, other industry experts – such as Tyler LaBarge, managing partner for CDL Career Now – believe tactics other than just pay increases alone must be deployed in the effort to find and keep drivers for the long-term.

First, he said new drivers in particular are probably dealing with loans that helped them pay for driver training courses – courses that don’t come cheap.

“Most drivers entering the trucking industry are already under some sort of financial stress,” LaBarge explained. “That’s why it’s important for the motor carriers of all sizes to help alleviate the students’ financial burdens through monthly tuition reimbursement payments. That will save on their driver turnover costs.”

Another tactic: investing in attractive and reliable equipment. “The reliability of equipment is important: remember when a truck is down, nobody is making money, with the exception of the tow truck and repair garage,” LaBarge stressed.

“Also, the truck is, in essence, the driver’s home and he (or she) is happier in better equipment,” he pointed out. “To take it one step further, perhaps fleet owners should ask the drivers for input on their truck order’s component specifications. Because these trucks are in essence their home on the road and so the better accommodations they have, the better they will feel.”

Focusing on driver health and wellness plans are also an industry-must – not in the least because poor health is reducing the lifespan of the average trucker to 61 years, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) – 15 years below the national average.

“Drivers need and deserve such attention. After all, they’re dealing with sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and obesity,” LaBarge explained. “So, monthly or quarterly, carriers should sponsor a weight loss or nutrition-programs. Consider offering $1,500 to $2,000 annually for meeting all the health goals. Trucking is a lifestyle change and isn’t for the faint of heart. There really should be measures in place to help keep the driver population healthy.”

Finally, LaBarge thinks offering a “career path” of some sort to drivers is a necessity – even if that path might eventually remove them from behind the wheel.

“It’s not uncommon to hear about a driver becoming a supervisor, a dispatcher, a trainer or recruiter, [so] inform drivers of their options and clearly state the expectations,” he said. “[Trucking is] a tough business with some extremely talented and dedicated professionals behind the wheels. They do deserve more respect, more pay, and more attention.”