As the trucker shortage deepens, ag groups seek to make it easier to become a driver

The Ottawa Cooperative Association, which moves grain and fertilizer in eastern Kansas, lost many of its truck drivers during the pandemic.

“COVID really kind of kicked the baby boomers out, which they drove trucks, a lot of ’em did,” said Judd Perry, the fuel manager, “and now that we had such a huge exodus of them, there’s just nobody to replace ’em.”

The American Trucking Associations estimates that the shortage of drivers, which was around 78,000 in 2022, will likely double by 2031. It also says that the industry will need to recruit around 1.2 million drivers to replace retirees, but one of the barriers to hiring new drivers is the cost of training, which can be up to $7,000.

Perry said a federal rule change that standardized training for commercial driver’s licenses is making it even harder for the co-op to train employees in-house. Even the co-op employees who have passed the training and gotten their licenses often get poached by bigger companies, he said.

“We put our time in there and then they’re gone,” Perry said. “… It is what it is.”

Seeking solutions to the shortage

One of the industries most affected by the driver shortage is agriculture. Ag businesses and organizations are trying to help attract more drivers to trucking.

The Illinois Farm Bureau started offering a scholarship for the commercial driver’s license training, which often happens at community colleges, ahead of the rule change. The application asks for an endorsement from someone in the ag industry to show that the applicant is going to use the license to benefit agriculture.

“Trucking is a huge industry, and so when it faces a labor shortage, we need to make sure that ag products can continue to move and continue to feed the supply chain,” said Jennifer Smith, the development manager of the Illinois Farm Bureau’s charitable organization, the IAA Foundation.

Smith said the scholarship has been a success so far. They’re not alone in offering financial help. There are a number of scholarships offered across the country to help potential drivers afford training.

But Smith said they’ve learned that the financial burden isn’t the only obstacle for potential drivers. Finding the time to go through the training also can be a hurdle.

“That ability for somebody to step away from what they do on a day-to-day basis and go take the training really is another one of those barriers that we can’t exactly address,” said Smith, “but we can definitely help lighten that financial burden and encourage them to go do that.”

She said the community colleges that offer night classes help.

‘A special kind of person’

The Ottawa Cooperative Association offered its own scholarship of $6,000 to be divided between four high school seniors this year. The application closed May 1 with only one applicant.

Perry said that he believes this was probably partly due to the difficulty of the trucking lifestyle, which involves long hours and time spent away from the family.

“Truck driving takes a special person,” said Perry.

In its recent report, the American Trucking Associations cited lifestyle as one of the many reasons for the shortage.

Some groups are pushing for policy change, such as lowering the federal age limit that keeps truckers under the age of 21 from being able to drive across state lines, as well as advocating for infrastructure that would decrease traffic delays.

“If we could make those infrastructure investments and make that traffic flow instead of being congested and stopped, maybe that’s a fix to the drivers,” said Tom Crawford, president of the Missouri Trucking Association.

In the meantime, many organizations are making do with the drivers they have. Crawford said the group’s members pride themselves on solving problems.

“That’s how they make their living. You have something that needs to go from here to there,” he said. “How are you gonna get it there with what you’ve got?”

This story was produced by Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest, and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America.