Geographies in Depth

Can a TikTok star or autonomous trucks reverse the global shortage of commercial drivers?

Lorries queue on the M20 motorway as part of Operation Stack following the coronavirus disease

The commercial driving sector is under enormous pressure from multiple sources. Image: REUTERS/Peter Cziborra

Sean Fleming
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • There are too few drivers entering the commercial trucking sector, says a new survey.
  • Global supply chains rely on there being enough drivers to keep goods moving.
  • Over a quarter of truck drivers in the US will be 65 years or older by 2030.
  • Only 2% of truck drivers globally are women.
  • One female truck driver in the US has become a TikTok star.
  • But more women and young drivers need to be recruited to reverse the current trend.

During the pandemic, millions of people around the world got used to working from home. But bus, coach and truck drivers – commercial drivers of all sorts – are one group of workers for whom working from home was never an option.

The commercial driving sector is under enormous pressure from multiple sources. The pandemic has heightened some of the tensions in the sector, while in the UK, Brexit has compounded the problem. Increased demand for e-commerce, an ageing workforce and a lack of diversity are all among the challenges the sector faces.

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In some parts of the world, 25% of driving jobs are unfilled, according to a report from the International Road Transport Union (IRU), which surveyed 800 road transport businesses in over 20 countries.

The main issue? There are simply too few people wanting to work as truck drivers. Without them, global supply chains may struggle to operate without further disruption.

“A shortage of drivers simply means that some truck journeys just don't happen,” explains William Petty, Deputy Director at the Global Alliance for Trade. “This leads to delays in delivery of goods, and can even lead to total loss of the cargo - for example with perishable goods.”

“All of this has a direct impact on trade and competitiveness - if you are an exporter and your lead times become unpredictable, or if your costs increase, your customers may turn to other suppliers,” he added.

a map showing driver shortage across the world
Lack of trained drivers was found to be the main cause of driver shortage in all regions. Image: IRU

A generation gap

Truck drivers aren’t getting any younger. A 2019 US Department of Transportation report into the potential impact of driver automation technology on the sector, found that: “In 10 years, 28% of the current heavy truck driving workforce [in the US] will be 65 years or older”.

a chart showing the average age of drunk drivers in the us
The average US truck driver is male and 48 years of age. Image: US Department of Transportation

In the longer-term, this could open up opportunities for autonomous-vehicle use in the transport sector, the Department’s report says. “Given the older age profile associated with truck drivers, it is likely reasonable to expect that many in the current workforce will retire by the time... driving automation achieves mainstream adoption.”

A diverse future

“Only 2% of truck drivers globally are women,” the IRU says. The number of women working as bus and coach drivers is climbing, the Union says, rising to 16% of the European sector’s workforce in 2020.

The IRU is calling for more investment in safe and secure truck parking areas, to “make long-haul driver conditions safer and get more people behind the wheel, especially women”.

One of those people behind the wheel is Clarissa Rankin from Charlotte, North Carolina, in the US. She has been driving a truck for more than five years and now manages her own trucking business along with her husband. Rankin is also a TikTok sensation, regularly posting videos of her life on the road as a working mother.

Her goal, she says, is to encourage future generations of female drivers, hoping there will be girls watching her videos thinking: “I always wanted to be a trucker because I watched Clarissa Rankin”.

Exceptional circumstances in the UK

Since it formally left the European Union, the UK’s trading relationships with its nearest neighbours have changed. Goods can no longer move freely and frictionlessly in and out of the country and citizens of other EU member states are no longer automatically entitled to live and work there.

Tim O’Malley, group managing director of Nationwide Produce, a UK-based fresh food shipping company, recently wrote on his company’s website about food being left to rot or get thrown away because of the shortage of truck drivers.

He cited a “large proportion of drivers in the UK” that are foreign nationals who have returned to the EU because of Brexit. He also points to the challenges of an ageing workforce and fewer young people joining the sector.

In some countries, youth unemployment rates are over 30%, the IRU says. It believes the minimum age for commercial drivers should be lowered to 18 – it is currently 21 in many parts of the world. If training could begin at the age of 17, it could be possible to get more young people interested in a long-term career as a driver, the IRU says.

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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthSupply Chains and TransportationTrade and Investment
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