September 2017

Driving a Younger Generation to Trucking

Finding and keeping drivers is likely the biggest challenge facing the trucking industry today and a top- ranked issue since 2005, according to American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) statistics. In fact, in 2015 the industry think-tank projected it would take the hiring of almost a million drivers over the coming decade just to maintain the existing workforce.

Although the driver shortage is blamed on a broad range of factors, most likely the short hours, comfortable work conditions and high pay (laugh out loud), a Wall Street Journal report on the situation in May narrowed it down some, attributing the growing shortfall to the aging of the truck driving labor force. Most industry estimates, including ATRI put the average age of drivers at about 49 now and posits that replacing retiring drivers will account for at least half of new hires the industry needs in the next decade.

Of the trends and economic forces buffeting the trucking industry lately this one has become especially pernicious, a chronic pain in the collective backside of truck fleet operators nationwide. The driver shortage, at least in the eyes of a Wall Street Journal reporter is doing a good job of following the laws of supply and demand. Competition for drivers is doing some positive things for drivers like boosting pay, and providing access to newer safer equipment as well as broader benefits. On the other hand, the driver shortfall will likely, warn most industry observers, other, less positive effects on the industry; things like stymied growth, poached employees, high turnover in particular and less direct impact on the economy and the price of goods. Regardless it’s going to get even more expensive if the industry doesn’t become even more proactive to stem the outgoing and increasingly grey tide.

Hey, the Kids are Alright

Looking at things demographically one of the largest groups to offer a potential pool of new talent are people from 18 to 25 years of age, the fabled millennials, you know, one of those folks that may be inhabiting a few of your basements out there right now. A truck driver has to be 21 to obtain a CDL for interstate commerce, which naturally prevents those younger than 21 from entering the industry’s workforce and effectively closing off opportunities that might attract them otherwise.

In looking at the issue from another angle ATRI finds that while the industry may not be all that attractive to millennials from 18-25, millennials may not be all that attractive to the industry—at least from a risk standpoint. To put it bluntly “As a group, the 18 to 25 year age group is characterized by elevated risk when compared to older age groups. Underlying factors of this heightened risk include immature cognitive function, a tendency to impulsively approach sources of pleasure, and high risk-taking behavior rates that are often associated with preventable negative consequences.”

Oh, if only that kind of behavior was exclusive to the young. Regardless ATRI thinks that in spite of the age group’s general risk profile, there is sure to be some in 18-25 year-old age group that will be as safe as older professionals and identifiably safer than their impulsive immature peers. ATRI wanted to find a way and in 2015 made it a research priority to explore whether or not younger drivers were as safe as drivers in older age groups, and in the process look to creating some sort of an assessment tool so the industry could identify (and ultimately hire with confidence) those younger, but safer drivers.

A year later ATRI’s research has yielded results their study largely supporting the theory that by selecting for younger drivers with specific physical and psychological characteristics, “it may be possible to identify young drivers with the same characteristics as a safe, veteran driver.”

“Regardless of age,” said ATRI in its study conclusion, “driving safety outcomes can be reliably predicted by personality traits, health factors, and cognitive characteristics.” Additionally, said ATRI, driving experience is a significant predictor of crash risk. Many of these factors have been tested in non-commercial drivers, explained ATRI, with some application to truck drivers. Ultimately, the primary goal of ATRI’s “Younger Driver Assessment Tool” research is to find out if a test-based assessment of risk-related characteristics can really predict, to an actionable degree, driving safety outcomes above and beyond age in a sample of truck drivers.

There might be an aversion to hiring what used to be known as “adults,” out there but finding a decent screening technique is certainly worth exploring and if it has a positive effect on scores and other safety and cost metrics then we’re all for it. But beyond putting PS4 console in the sleeper along with the ELD gear to keep up with the Feds and monitor millennial Mary and Mike on the road, it is imperative the industry become more proactive in directly recruiting younger drivers. Is an 18-year old inherently less safe than an older driver? ATRI wants to find out.

But it occurred to me that some, like the U.S. military, have few qualms about putting someone under 21 at the wheel of a quarter of a million-dollar rig and let them drive it cross country—in fact, I saw her this summer – obviously right around 20 and about 110 lbs of fatigue-clad Army energy fueling a military spec Oshkosh water hauler at a truck stop in Virginia—I later caught up to her and the rest of the 30-truck convoy headed to another base; passing truck after truck driven by young drivers— and I never felt safer.


ATRI, August 2017 “Developing a Younger Driving Assessment Tool Technical Memorandum #1

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