One of the biggest problems facing the U.S. truck driving industry is a lack of roster growth coupled with soaring turnover rates.
The combined issues of a stifling regulatory environment and a number of veteran drivers nearing retirement has put U.S. freight carriers in a tough spot. The driver shortage remains one of the most concerning issues in trucking, but it could actually be worse than initially believed.
Bob Costello, senior vice president and chief economist of the American Trucking Associations, spoke about the future of the trucking industry and noted the number of drivers needed could balloon to 175,000 by 2026.
That’s more than triple the figure of 50,000 trucking is facing now. But even that is possibly misrepresented, as many statistics fail to analyze it in relation to the total number of drivers within the sector of interest.
There are currently about 10 million people with a CDL in the U.S., and many would claim this statistic is the one analysts should go by. But this isn’t representative of the number of active truckers out there by a long shot – it includes those who have ditched trucking after getting their license either temporarily or permanently.
Even those who have had a CDL for a decade but haven’t been on the road in as long are counted toward this statistic. It also takes into account positions like limousine drivers who aren’t factored into determining trucking’s roster data.
Costello says the actual number of truck drivers among CDL holders is closer to around 3.5 million. This figure is usually the one cited when people bring up the shortage of 50,000. Given the shortage is a mere fraction of the total, some view the lack of drivers as a minor problem rather than a pressing issue.
The main problem lies in a shortage of over-the-road drivers (OTR), which essentially means those drivers who handle freight transport over long distances rather than just local routes.
The Department of Labor lists the number of for-hire truckers at around 864,000, but Costello says the number of OTR drivers is around 500,000. A shortage of 50,000 drivers becomes a lot more concerning when it’s a part of a pool of 500,000 rather than 3.5 million.
As for how he arrived at the total of 175,000 drivers for 2026, Costello analyzed current shortages along with forecasted market demand for the next several years. According to his calculations, trucking could end up needing a staggering 900,000 truckers to make things work.
Retention rates have been creeping down slowly, but they’re still staying around 100 percent. This means carriers will have to do a lot more to keep talent around and incentivize drivers to stick with the company for the long term.
Better pay could help, as could retention-based perks like company stock plans. But these strategies would need to be put into effect soon to create the necessary roster growth. If the problem persists, freight rates and consumer prices could skyrocket.