A shortage of truck drivers has both agriculture industry stakeholders and lawmakers concerned as supply chain bottlenecks make it difficult for retailers, producers and consumers to obtain the inputs they need or get their own products to the market. 

While shortages of materials and congestion at ports have all played a role in disrupting the steady flow of goods through the country, the availability of truck drivers has also been a contributing factor that has gummed up the supply chain. 

“It’s all of these things coalescing together that I think has a lot of folks really worried about what the spring looks like and their ability to make a crop and hopefully make a profit, so they can continue to farm into the next season,” Andrew Walmsley, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Agri-Pulse.

Andrew Walmsley.jpegAndrew Walmsley, AFBF

The Department of Transportation said in a press release that turnover rates are 90% for large long haul carriers and over 72% for small carriers. According to DOT, this means drivers are regularly either leaving the companies they work for or the industry altogether.

“The lag time that results in training and onboarding new drivers can result in driver shortages,” the release stated. “This turnover, coupled with effects from the pandemic, has helped lead to supply chain disruptions for essential goods and transporting freight in and out of ports.”

The American Trucking Associations, one of the largest groups representing the industry, estimated the industry shortage at about 80,000 drivers, in a report it released on Oct. 25. It attributed the shortage to a number of factors including an aging workforce, a lack of female representation in the industry, a federally mandated minimum age of 21 to drive commercially across state lines, impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the challenges presented by the trucking lifestyle.

“The solution to the driver shortage will most certainly require increased pay, regulatory changes and modifications to shippers’, receivers’ and carriers’ business practices to improve conditions for drivers,” the paper said.

According to RJ Karney, the senior director of public policy at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, producers and agricultural retailers from all 50 states have described difficulties they’ve seen in securing transportation for their goods.

“The commissioners and secretaries are receiving calls on a consistent basis from the farmers, ranchers and dairies in their states about trying to move their product,” Karney said. “There is definitely concern of what the eventual cost will be for the farmers that are impacted.”

There are a number of potential solutions to the lack of available truckers, though industry groups say it’ll take multiple efforts to solve the complex issue. 

One of the changes that has already been made is the addition of four provisions to the hours of service regulations the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration put in place for drivers: an expansion of the short-haul exception to 150 air-miles, an adverse driving conditions exception that opens the driving window by an additional two hours during bad weather, a requirement of at least a 30-minute break after eight cumulative hours of driving time and a modification to the sleeper berth exception. 

“We were very pleased that the administration and the Department of Transportation extended hours of service requirements for truckers, Karney said. "That's one of those short-term solutions that will help and provide great benefit. But it's not a silver bullet by any stretch. There's still just a lot of concern over trying to find drivers to come in and move a product.” 

Allison CookeAllison Rivera, NCBA

Throughout most of the pandemic, livestock haulers have been exempt from hours-of-service requirements. Allison Rivera, executive director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said this has been helpful for livestock haulers. 

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“This has helped give our guys flexibility,” Rivera said. “If we have a plant that maybe isn't running at full capacity and they're not able to take a load that they were expected to take, then that driver is able to pivot to another location that is able to take the animals.”

A group of legislators, led by House Ag Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., former House Ag Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., penned a letter last month calling for Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to prioritize Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) grant applications for those looking to become truck drivers. The WOIA program provides access to job training for dislocated workers, low-income individuals and out-of-work youth, and the legislators believe expediting the process could help fill the estimated 80,000 current openings.

“If it weren’t for the industry, most of the country’s businesses would be unable to operate today,” the legislators wrote. “Putting forward data-driven policies to improve the quality of life and flexibility for drivers, the trucking industry’s most vital asset, is important for lowering turnover rates among those workers and attracting a new generation to the workforce.”

In the letter, legislators said data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the trucking industry lost 6% of its pre-pandemic labor force of 1.52 million workers. They said that as of October, the industry had regained about 65,000 of these jobs, but was still short of effectively meeting supply chain demands.

One other solution that industry groups have proposed is increasing truck weight limits on federal highways beyond the current limit of 80,000 pounds. Some states like California have also increased the weight restrictions on their own highways to allow truckers to haul more goods.

“The administration is looking for ways to lessen the supply chain issues,” Rivera said. “We feel like increasing truck weights is something that would go a long way.”

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