This summer, millions of college graduates are entering the workforce, ready to contribute to the U.S. economy. Many will end up in traditional workplaces, from accountancies and hospitals to banks and manufacturers.
However, one American industry in particular — a bellwether for the broader economy — could use its own influx of young professionals: trucking. Nearly all U.S. commerce relies on motor carriers (e.g. trucks) to transport products to their final destination, and yet the trucking industry currently faces a critical shortage of drivers.
This shortage is a threat to not only trucking, but also to the countless businesses that depend on it, including the $26 billion convenience services industry, comprised mostly of small businesses that provide snacks and beverages to Americans through vending machines, micro markets, coffee, tea, water and pantry services. The convenience services industry provides over 140,000 Americans with good-paying jobs.
Trucks move roughly three-quarters of the country’s freight by weight, whether it’s food and beverages or an online purchase. In the United States, there are nearly 34 million trucks registered and used for business purposes, traveling about 300 billion miles in a given year.
Not surprisingly, trucking is a boon to the U.S. economy, not only for the commerce that it supports, but also in terms of business expansion and job creation. According to recent Census Bureau data, America is home to more than 711,000 trucking businesses — an all-time high — and more than 3.5 million Americans work as truck drivers.
Unfortunately, the industry is struggling to recruit new drivers. The average age of a commercial truck driver is 55 years old, and many are facing retirement in the near future. According to the American Trucking Associations, the trucking industry needs to hire roughly 900,000 workers to meet rising demand.
In recent years, trucking’s driver shortage has disproportionately impacted food-service distribution and convenience-services operators, who rely on truckers to transport goods in a timely and cost-effective manner. When the trucking industry suffers, so do those small businesses, their customers and the U.S. economy.
Further complicating matters, commercial truck drivers are currently stymied by federal, state and local laws. For instance, most states allow individuals to obtain a commercial driver’s license at age 18 but prevent those operators from moving goods across state lines until they reach 21 years of age. Such restrictions on interstate deliveries are particularly problematic in areas near state borders, as they negatively impact the timely delivery of food and beverage products to convenience services operators and other small businesses.
Congress has an opportunity to step up. This week, members of the convenience services industry will meet with leaders from both sides of the aisle to further galvanize support for the DRIVE-Safe Act during the National Automatic Merchandising Association’s annual Fly-In and Advocacy Summit. This bipartisan proposal — gaining momentum on Capitol Hill — would address trucking’s driver shortage by enticing young drivers to join the industry through additional earning opportunities. Moreover, the bill would lower the interstate commercial truck driving age to 18 nationally, resolving many issues related to America’s retail distribution channels.
To ensure safety — an utmost priority — the DRIVE-Safe Act would train young drivers above current standards, while requiring state-of-the-art technology in all training vehicles. Before crossing state lines, drivers under the age of 21 would have to complete 240 hours of on-the-road experience with an experienced truck driver. The end result would be a robust, highly qualified driving force that prioritizes safety above all else.
However, government action is not enough. We also need to encourage Americans young and old, male and female, to consider trucking as a viable career, by highlighting its many benefits. Consider that the median annual wage for a private fleet trucker, such as a truck driver employed by Walmart, is $73,000. Some drivers earn six-figure salaries.
Without truck drivers, industries like convenience services simply couldn’t function properly. Without trucking, American commerce falls apart.
By supporting the DRIVE-Safe Act, Congress can prevent that from happening — and stimulate the U.S. economy for decades to come.
Carla Balakgie serves as president and CEO of NAMA, the National Automatic Merchandising Association.
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