The COVID-19 pandemic has presented roadblocks for truckers, but a renewed interest in the profession has created opportunities.
As the nation offers thanks to health care workers and employees of grocery stores that remain open to provide food and household essentials, it is easy to forget the people who delivered the supplies in the first place.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put large demands on truckers, who have had to contend with shifting consumer buying patterns and risk of exposure.
“Without truckers, grocery stores would have been empty in three or four days,” says Jana Jarvis, president of the Oregon Trucking Association. “Thankfully truckers were deemed essential workers. But as a lot of states closed their rest areas, truck stops and restaurants, we had no place to eat, sleep or go to the bathroom.”
A trucker reaches for a drink at the 'Meals for Drivers' event. Photo: Oregon Trucking Association
The onset of the pandemic brought increased pressure to deliver products as a panicked population hoarded essential supplies such as toilet paper. When businesses began to close, demand dried up.
According to Jarvis, the trucking industry went from modest gains in March to being down 30% three to four weeks into shutdown.
While emergency deliveries and shortages have lessened, an increase in e-commerce has led to an uptick in trucking demand. What was initially a 30% decline in demand compared with the yearly average, is now closer to 15%.
As more trade opens up from ports connected to Asia, those numbers could further improve.
While some analysts have pointed to Amazon’s newly announced fleet of UPS-style carrier trucks as potential competition for truck drivers, Jarvis is not worried. The new trucks are built to bring products to people’s doors, not spend days on the freeway, and present more of a threat to companies like FedEx than long-haul truckers.
A truck stops for a pick-me-up at the 'Meals for Drivers' event. Photo: Oregon Trucking Association
The surge in e-commerce and technological innovation as a result of the pandemic have created new efficiencies in the trucking industry. New technologies include loading and logbook apps like tpMobile and contract bidding apps like uShip.
Businesses have also helped accommodate truckers’ needs. Jarvis reached out to restaurant chain McDonalds to advocate for truckers being able to use the restrooms and get food more efficiently. The fast food company subsequently introduced app features specifically geared toward delivery for truckers.
The pandemic has increased enrollment in trucking schools. Since 2005, the American Trucking Association has released reports on the pending truck driver shortage: the average age of truck drivers is 50. However, with more people out of work, Jarvis says there has been a surge in applications.
New federal legislation presents an opportunity for the trucking industry to overcome one of its biggest challenges: age restrictions.
Of all trucking contracts, 95% require drivers to cross states. Under federal guidelines, no person under 21 can legally take those jobs, severely restricting recruitment.
The DRIVE-Safe Act, sponsored by Indiana Republican Todd Young and Montana Democrat Jon Tester, was reintroduced in the Senate in February, after more than five years of inaction. The act would lower the age requirement to haul interstate from 21 to 18 years of age.
“They’re looking at it because the need to address this issue is stronger than ever,” says Jarvis. “I think people are finally starting to get it.”
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