Shortages this year on seasonal items including Christmas trees, Thanksgiving turkeys, and hot holiday toys look likely, supply chain experts warn. Behind much of the problem is another shortage that has been brewing for years: There aren't enough truck drivers to move products domestically.
For the last two decades, trucking has failed to grow its workforce, says Leah Shaver, president of The National Transportation Institute. "We've probably been talking about it as an industry, forecasting the issue for about 20 years," she says. "With strong concerns for at least about 10 years."
Covid-19 exacerbated these concerns, she says. "Of the companies that have internal training programs, 71% of fleets we surveyed that have training programs completely halted that training during the pandemic," Shaver says. "That pipeline that brings in new drivers as folks age out or wear out was completely drained during Covid-19."
This is all despite the pay being quite good, says Scott Grawe, chair of the department of supply chain management at Iowa State University. The median pay of a truck driver was $47,130 in 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, Grawe says he's seen people get paid significantly more: "There are several opportunities to make six figures as a truck driver."
The compounded effects of the pandemic, holiday season, and the driver shortage has led a lot of consumers to notice how reliant they are on the supply chain working the way it is meant to. Fewer truck drivers means less product on shelves and less incentive for stores to discount the products they do have in stock.
All of this means that holiday shopping, Shaver says, is going to look and feel different this year.
Without enough drivers to move goods from ports to retailers, lots of product from overseas will experience delays getting to store shelves. This includes holiday decor and gift go-tos like books, apparel, and toys. The same goes for online orders. Three-to-five day shipping on USPS packages during Q3 is experiencing more delays than it was during the same period last year, according to the USPS quarterly report.
"I would guess shopping is going to be necessary at an early stage, and well planned, and well thought-out," Shaver says. "I would be most concerned about those last-minute shoppers who might not have concerns about delays in the supply chain."
The same is true for local products like Christmas trees, says George Richardson of Richardson Christmas Tree Farm in Spring Grove, Illinois. There is enough supply, he says, but distributing it around the country will be harder this year than in previous years.
"These major growers in North Carolina, they have a lot of trees growing, but it's difficult to get a truck full of trees for everyone who wants one," Richardson says. "We may not be able to get, for example, a Fraser fir to Florida, just because of logistics and transportation and demand for them. You may not get a noble fir from Oregon down to San Diego."
Along with the halt in trainings, the truck driver shortage can be traced back to a few different challenges. For one, the industry has trouble recruiting and retaining women, Shaver says: "Less than 10% of professional drivers are women. When women look at this career they might not see a lot of their peers in the industry and they think they cannot do that job."
Professional retail truckers are not allowed to cross state lines until they are age 21, which makes recruiting drivers right out of high school challenging.
"We are working to get curriculum and training in at the high school level to create and articulate a career path in the transportation industry," Shaver says. "If we can attract some younger folks in the industry, then we can drive down the average age of the professional driver."
One of the biggest deterrents is the industry's lack of good work-life balance, says Grawe of Iowa State University. "There are limited opportunities to find trucking jobs that put you home every night," he says. You also work long hours and "sit in traffic a lot."
John Lex, 56, has been a truck driver for 36 years, including 18 working for Walmart. He pushes back on the notion that truck driving impedes your ability to have a full life. "When my kids were younger, I was a soccer coach, I was a football coach and a T-ball coach, and a deacon at my church," says Lex, who lives in Monroe, Georgia.
He resents the stigma of what people think a truck driver looks like: "Unfortunately, people have this misconception about truck drivers that we are old and fat and we wear dirty clothes — and it's not that."
Trucking has been financially rewarding for Lex. "I have two kids I put through college," he says. "I've never had any financial problems due to the trucking industry. I've never been laid off, because there is always a demand for truck drivers."
Lex, who receives cancer treatments every other week, also says he has "great health insurance."
Before Lex's diagnosis, he was driving five days a week and working between 50 and 60 hours a week. Truck driving regulations state that drivers cannot work more than 11 hours per day and 70 hours per week. After taking time for treatment, he is driving three days a week.
Walmart has been asking workers to take on more shifts to keep up with holiday demand, within those limits. "We are asked to extend our hours if we can to go work our full 70 in a week to keep up with all the freight," he says.
Extending hours and rushing products isn't anything he hasn't been called to do before, he says. "This is no different from our normal routines any time there is a natural disaster." The pandemic, however, means that this year consumers may actually notice that extra effort.
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