Woman hand accepting a delivery of boxes from deliveryman

Driving Demand

More deliveries means more need for drivers – for now.

Among the more spectacular failures of the dotcom boom of the late 1990s was Kozmo.com, an online delivery service that promised to bring consumers everything from a pint of Ben and Jerry’s to movies to a tube of toothpaste to their front doors – for free. Dubbed the “frothiest disaster of the first dotcom bubble” by Wired, the company lasted just three years after burning through $250 million.

As it turns out, Kozmo.com was simply ahead of its time. Today, major online retailers such as Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart are all vying to provide same-day delivery to their customers. No fewer than 14 different services now promise to bring Ben and Jerry’s to your doorstep, including on the same day or within two hours (and with no melting).

One result of this now widespread acceptance of e-commerce and home delivery is a growing and urgent demand for drivers – at least for now. During the 2017 holiday season, for example, shipping giants FedEx and UPS both reported record numbers of deliveries and surging profits. Also boosting driver demand are longer and more complex supply chains that can involve multiple production facilities; dozens, hundreds or even thousands of suppliers; and “just in time” inventory controls.

We will need over three million good drivers in the next ten years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), moving these mountains of packages and freight from businesses to consumers and from business to business will require 1,1015,600 drivers of “light” delivery trucks (think UPS’s brown vans) by 2026 – a 7 percent increase from 2016 – and nearly 2 million drivers of big rigs.

For the time being, however, these drivers are in short supply. In fact, says the American Trucking Association (ATA), America is potentially facing a severe shortage of truck drivers – as many as 174,000 drivers – by 2026.

According to the ATA, the U.S. trucking industry has struggled to attract enough recruits to meet both growing demand and replace a generation of aging truckers. The average age of heavy truck drivers is 49, which means that millennials haven’t been eager to hit the road. And while 38.7 percent of drivers were minorities, says the ATA, just 6 percent of drivers are women. Good drivers are also hard to find. The ATA reports that “many otherwise eligible candidates are disqualified as a result of poor driving history or other related factors.”

The desperation for drivers is why some trucking companies are now offering to foot the bill for trainees. Roehl, for example, promises to pay trainees $500 a week during the four-week training for a commercial drivers’ license and to put drivers on the payroll halfway through. “Don’t even think about a CDL school that would require you to take out a loan to pay the course tuition, and still require you to job hunt after your licensing!” Roehl’s site exhorts. “Roehl provides guaranteed job security and a way to earn $60,000+.”

Technology could burst the truck driving career bubble.

But before you drop your desk job for trucking school, is driving also a potential bubble career? If the nation does manage to employ 3 million drivers by 2026 (both for heavy and light trucks), how long will these drivers have a job before they are automated away?

The answer could be “not for long.” Ironically enough, the shortage of human drivers might be accelerating the push to put driverless trucks on the road. A 2017 report by the International Transport Forum (ITF), an intergovernmental organization with 57 member countries, concluded that “[d]riverless trucks could be a regular presence on many roads within the next ten years.” As a result, said the ITF, as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of drivers – or between 3.4 million and 4.4 million drivers in the United States and Europe – could “become redundant” as early as 2030. As for light truck and delivery drivers, automation is heading their way too. A 2016 report by McKinsey predicts that drones, droids and “parcel lockers” could account for 80 percent of home deliveries – and within the next ten years.

Proponents of driverless trucks say the technology will bring numerous benefits, not least of which is to save the lives of thousands of people (including those of truck drivers) on highways while also saving time and money for shippers. The American Trucking Association also argues that automation could also help make the job of long-haul trucking less stressful and potentially attract younger workers to the industry.

Be that as it may be, those benefits will not come without cost for the millions of workers and their families who currently drive for a living – or who are training for jobs on the road while demand for drivers is at its peak. If the current shortage of drivers is soon to become a surplus, society owes it to these drivers to avoid a crash.