America’s economy moves in the backs of millions of trucks on our highways each day. The things we rely on as Americans—stocked shelves, full gas tanks, furnished homes—are delivered by the trucking industry. Our industry employs millions of people, logs millions of miles on the highways and serves our nation’s retailers, manufacturers, recyclers, hospitals and homes, delivering to every community and corner of the country.

Responsible for safely and efficiently delivering more than 10 billion tons of freight annually, our industry has a big job to do—and some significant challenges in doing it.

Improving our infrastructure is just one challenge facing trucking. Our industry faces many others, including a growing shortage of drivers and technicians.

Highways in need of repair

Chief among our challenges is the condition of our nation’s roads and bridges. With our interstate highway system facing decay and congestion, it is time for our country to come up with a solution to repair, rebuild and improve our network of highways.

The American Transportation Research Institute, Arlington, Virginia, says congestion costs the trucking industry $63.4 billion annually—costs that are ultimately borne by shippers and consumers. Consumers pay a hidden tax of $1,500 per year in wasted fuel, time and vehicle repairs as a result of road conditions.

The problem, as it often is, is how to pay for it all.

For decades the federal fuel tax kept the Highway Trust Fund solvent. But leaders in Washington have not increased the fuel tax at all since 1993, while the cost of everything else has increased—effectively halving the purchasing power of the revenue collected.

Some believe we could keep doing what we’ve been doing: investing not quite enough to maintain our highways and borrowing from China and elsewhere to do it. We at the American Trucking Associations (ATA) suggest finding fair, sustainable funding sources to provide the revenue we need to properly maintain and grow our infrastructure.

The ATA has proposed creating the Build America Fund—a 20-cent-per-gallon fee, phased in over four years, on the sale of motor fuel at the wholesale level. By including the fee in the price of fuel, the moderate impact on end users will be softened, but the fee will generate $340 billion during a 10-year period to shore up the Highway Trust Fund and provide investment for needed infrastructure improvements.

By removing some barriers that prevent young people from learning on the job and demonstrating they can responsibly operate large trucks, we can help draw new and untapped populations into our industry.

Trucks in need of drivers and technicians

Improving our infrastructure is just one challenge facing trucking. Our industry faces many others, including a growing shortage of drivers and technicians.

Right now, the trucking industry is short more than 50,000 drivers. Those are 50,000 trucks that could be delivering for America but are parked instead, waiting for qualified drivers to get behind their wheels.

If conditions do not change, the driver shortage could balloon to nearly 175,000 by 2026. To keep up with demand for freight transportation, the trucking industry needs to hire roughly 90,000 new drivers per year, which is a tall order.

Our industry is facing some tough demographics. The median driver in the truckload sector is 49 years old—more than seven years older than the average American worker.

In addition, right now, federal law prohibits young drivers—those between the ages of 18 and 20—from seriously pursuing careers in trucking, meaning that as our driver population ages, it is more and more difficult than it should be to fill their seats with young drivers.

Beyond the driver shortage, as trucks become more sophisticated, our industry needs a more sophisticated labor force to maintain them. Again, this will require a new influx of individuals into the industry; we need to attract roughly 75,000 new diesel technicians by 2022 to keep our trucks on the road.

How is our industry addressing these staffing shortfalls?

On the driver side, in particular, fleet owners are increasing pay. The median pay of a truckload driver, the sector of our industry most affected by the shortage, has risen $7,000 throughout the past four years. Fleet owners also are offering generous recruiting and retention bonuses.

To make the job more attractive to young people, ATA is supporting efforts in Congress—notably the DRIVE- (Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy-)Safe Act—to create a path forward. Modeled like an apprenticeship, the DRIVE-Safe Act would enable young drivers to get a full commercial driver’s license (CDL) before the age of 21.

By removing barriers that prevent young people from learning on the job and demonstrating they can responsibly operate large trucks, we can help draw new and untapped populations into our industry, making it possible to continue to move America’s goods.

With technicians, making sure young people know good-paying and challenging opportunities are waiting for them after they finish technical school is an important step toward recruiting more people into our industry.

The road ahead

If we make real progress on these challenges, it is our hope that a newly expanded workforce will be able to deliver America’s goods on new and improved roads, ensuring that trucks will continue to be the backbone of our growing, modern economy.

Bill Sullivan is executive vice president of advocacy for the American Trucking Associations (ATA), headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. More information on the ATA is available at www.trucking.org.