How Automation can Breathe New Life into an Aging Trucking Industry

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Automation Debated in Washington

In recent weeks the topic of automation within the transportation industry has been at the forefront of discussion in Washington. On September 6th the House voted to pass The SELF DRIVE Act (or the Safety Ensuring Lives Further Development and Research in Vehicle Evolution Act). The bill is now under the consideration of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee. The passage of this act into law would put regulations in place for the development of automated vehicles. The commercial applications of automation technology were not included in the house bill, but the House’s decision to pass the SELF DRIVE Act has given new life to questions about automation in the trucking industry.  While some commerce experts believe the introduction of such technology would threaten the job security of drivers others argue that automation could help solve an ever increasing problem within the industry, driver shortages.

The Driver Shortage

The American Trucking Association estimates that the industry is currently experiencing a driver shortage of roughly 48,000. These numbers are projected to increase exponentially, if dramatic changes are not implemented. What is causing these massive shortages? In truth there are a number of reasons for the shortage, but one of the more alarming reasons, that will hurt the industry long term, is an aging driver population. According to the American Transportation Research Institute the median age for drivers is 46 and carriers are disproportionately dependent on drivers aged 45 and over. The majority of new hires are middle age workers dissatisfied with their previous careers. Workers in their 20s and 30s are simply not choosing to drive trucks. Among the many reasons why younger members of the workforce are not considering careers as truck drivers is the federal requirement that a driver must be 21 years old to hold an inter-state commercial driver’s license. By the time young workers reach 21, many have found careers in other industries and/or are attending college. Another issue is the nature of trucking itself.

Millennial Views on Work

The millennial generation often comes under fire for being lazy and fickle when it comes to employment. However, studies have shown that millennials simply have a different view of work and what they wish to gain from different employment opportunities. According to a recent Gallup poll, work/life balance or well-being was what mattered most to millennials during a job search. While millennials want careers that provide financial stability, they also want to find employment that allows them to connect to their communities, have meaningful relationships, remain healthy, make noticeable contributions to their field, and have the flexibility to pursue interests outside of work. A career in long-haul trucking, with its’ long, often secluded hours and sedentary nature, does not provide the work/life balance that attracts many young workers.

Automation and Work/Life Balance

How can automation solve this image issue? As Chris Spears, President and CEO of the ATA states, “The automation of trucking does not mean the end of human involvement. Carriers will have to hire technologically astute individuals to command the operating systems of automated trucks. Jobs would not be eliminated, but would rather require greater skill and in turn be higher paying.” Currently over 20% of new college graduates have received degrees in tech fields. By automating the trucking industry, these new graduates could apply their education in a meaningful way to an industry that would require highly trained, tech savvy individuals, to operate smoothly. Additionally, the automation of trucking would cut down drive times allowing drivers to spend more time at home, creating the work/life balance desired by the millennial generation.

Looking Towards the Long-Term

John Larkin, managing director and head of transportation capital markets research at  Stifel Nicolaus Financial Corp said of the driver shortage “We’ve tried bonuses…we’ve set up driver training schools, we’ve tried to get people home more regularly, we’ve bought bigger nice trucks, and still the problem gets worse and worse.” These are short term solutions. As the age of the average truck driver increases the trucking industry will have to find long term solutions to the driver shortage dilemma by figuring out how to attract a younger workforce. Automation could be the answer.

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