The trucking industry has an age problem. While much of the focus in recent years has been on autonomous trucking and other technologies that could threaten the long-term viability of the industry, a troubling demographic trend has largely flown under the radar. In what the American Transportation Research Institute describes as a looming “driver cliff,” the transportation industry has come to rely disproportionately on older drivers, as the typical age of a commercial driver has climbed to 55 years on average. With the field already plagued by a significant driver shortage and endemic issues of high turnover and near-maximum utilization, it’s no exaggeration to say that the future of the industry depends on its ability to change this trend.
THE END OF THE BOOMER ERA
For many years, the baby boomer generation has formed the bedrock of the trucking industry. This meant a large pool of drivers, most of whom shared relatively similar mindsets and priorities. Now, however, that bedrock is beginning to crumble. The first baby boomers reached retirement age in 2011, and an estimated 10,000 have crossed that threshold every day since. This has slowly eroded the boomers’ share of the labor pool to the point that millennials now represent the country’s single largest working demographic. The problem for the industry is that, while millennials have seamlessly replaced baby boomers in the workforce at large, the same cannot be said of trucking.
A QUESTION OF APPEAL
These large-scale demographic shifts have also ushered in a changing of needs and desires among prospective employees. Where baby boomers have traditionally been loyal to single companies and often list money and stability among their greatest priorities, those things are less appealing to millennials. Surveys have shown that younger people tend to overlook financial considerations and loyalty benefits in favor of things like opportunities for growth and advancement, better work-life balance and the opportunity to have a say in the direction of the company. Throwing more money at the problem is not a viable solution, so what else can be done to draw young people to the trucking industry?
MARKETING TO MILLENNIALS
The first step in addressing the driver shortfall is learning how to market the job properly. The reality is that many of the traits millennials value – a dynamic work environment, the ability to travel and meet new people, the opportunity to perform meaningful work – are already inherent in trucking, but the message is rarely communicated effectively. Companies that understand how to sell the job are at a tremendous advantage, and this ability will soon become essential to survival in a workforce dominated by millennials.
BRINGING TECH TO TRUCKING
As a generation that has grown up in the midst of a technological revolution, it should come as no surprise that millennials place great value on technology and connectivity. Trucking has already begun to embrace this trend with tech such as satellite televisions, wireless internet and electronic logs. Advanced safety measures also promise to bring greater technological sophistication to the industry, and the specter of self-driving trucks still looms in the distance. These trends are no doubt appealing to tech-savvy millennials, but the industry must be willing to embrace change and welcome the future in order to capitalize.
Another hurdle for the trucking industry is one of more practical concern. Although anyone over the age of 18 is eligible to attain a CDL, drivers must be over 21 to haul hazardous materials or travel across state lines. While aimed at improving safety, this regulation has the unintended side effect of handicapping the industry when it comes to targeting young drivers. Rather than waiting until they become eligible for interstate trucking, many people aged 18 to 21 turn to other careers instead. It’s difficult for trucking companies to pull young people away once this has happened, leaving them at a natural disadvantage over industries in which no such age restrictions exist.
RETAINING YOUNG DRIVERS
Though hiring millennial workers is the primary challenge, it isn’t the only one. The final step is retaining them once they’re on the payroll. Turnover is a major problem in the industry as a whole, but millennials are especially prone to move from job to job. However, companies that offer clear avenues for advancement and welcome input from employees have had much greater success in both attracting and retaining younger drivers. Offering strong communication, frequent feedback and clear guidance is also essential. Finally, some analysts have suggested rotating drivers as another way to attract and keep millennials by offering fewer hours and more free time.
The modern trucking industry finds itself in a unique position. While a serious driver shortage and an inability to attract younger workers are certainly concerning, the industry is well-positioned to offer many of the things millennials seek in a career. In order to succeed, trucking companies must simply be willing to embrace a more technology-oriented future and work to meet the shifting priorities of the millennial workforce.