Our stubbornly high unemployment rate is playing a central role in the current presidential election campaigns. It’s also widely blamed for a general economic uneasiness that’s causing the recovery to sputter, the housing market to resist the lure of low interest rates, and businesses to drag their feet on even modest expansion. And yet there’s one important part of the economy that’s struggling with a chronic shortage of workers.

Of course I’m talking about truck drivers, specifically drivers for truckload carriers. Every day you hear about fleets with 50, 60, 70 or more openings for people with their commercial driver’s license (CDL) and a clean driving record. And that’s with freight volumes just bumping along at relatively modest levels. When, rather than if, the economy begins to pick up just a bit, the problem is going to get much worse as fleets start seeing lots of profitable freight they can’t take because there’s no one to move it.

This certainly isn’t a new problem for the TL sector. It eased up a bit during the Great Recession, not because there were more people clamoring for the job, but because freight disappeared and fleets contracted capacity sharply. Once GDP began creeping back into positive territory, the driver shortage came roaring back. And implementation of CSA, which made driver behavior central to public safety records, has exacerbated the problem by exposing a significant number of CDL holders who are too risky to hire.

To put some numbers on the issue, 90% of the truckload carriers recently surveyed by the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) said they couldn’t find enough drivers to hire. Most (88%) reported that they had plenty of applications, but that “the vast majority of the applicants don’t meet the carriers’ standards,” i.e., they are CSA liabilities.

So trucking finds itself coming back to the same old question—how do we get more truck drivers? At this point it’s clear that there aren’t enough qualified, experienced drivers to fill the seats. Other than closing the doors and parking the trucks, that leaves one option—find and train new candidates who are willing to undergo the rigorous process of earning a CDL and then live up to the high standards and responsibilities that come with the job.

Over half of ATA’s surveyed TL fleets said that while they don’t currently hire inexperienced drivers, they are now considering it. The others, presumably, have already started.

Given the country’s persistent high unemployment, it’s reasonable to assume there will be a sizeable pool of potential applicants for a career that offers plenty of job opportunities. But there are two enormous barriers to overcome before fleets can say “problem solved,” barriers that have in the past kept new blood from ending the driver shortage.

First, there’s training. Not so long ago, many larger TL carriers had their own driving schools, but they abandoned them quickly when the economy eased their driver shortages. The schools were expensive to run and too often had mixed effectiveness, turning out too many green drivers who either damaged safety ratings or left the industry quickly. According to the ATA survey, most fleets are not anxious to get into the training business again. That leaves private schools, where the issues will be measuring the effectiveness of their training and figuring out how to pay for it. But even if the training issue is addressed, there’s a second and more difficult barrier. Let’s talk about that next month.