LAKE MILTON, Ohio – Bob Blocksom, an 87-year-old former insurance salesman, needs a job. He hasn’t saved enough money for his retirement. And trucking companies, desperate for workers, are willing to give him one.
Age didn’t matter, they said. If Blocksom could get his “CDL” – commercial driver’s license – they would hire him for a $50,000 job. One even offered to pay his tuition for driver training school, but there was a catch: Blocksom had to commit to driving an 18-wheel truck all over America for a year.
So far, that has been too big of an ask for Blocksom, who doesn’t want to spend long stretches of time away from his wife of 60 years. “The more I think about it, it would be tough to be on the road Monday through Friday,” he said.
As the nation grapples with a historically low level of unemployment, trucking companies are doing what economists have said firms need to do to attract and retain workers: They’re hiking pay significantly, offering bonuses and even recruiting people they previously wouldn’t have considered.
But it’s not working. The industry reports a growing labor shortage – 63,000 open positions this year, a number expected to more than double in coming years – that could have wide-ranging impacts on the American economy.
Nearly every item sold in America touches a truck at some point, which explains why the challenges facing the industry, including trucking companies rapidly raising prices as they raise wages, have special power to affect the entire economy. Already, delivery delays are common, and businesses such as Amazon, General Mills and Tyson Foods are raising prices as they pass higher transportation costs along to consumers. A Walmart executive called rising transportation costs the company’s primary “head wind” on a recent call with investors.
Technology leaders such as Elon Musk hold out driverless trucks as a solution, but industry insiders say that is many years away. For now the industry simply can’t find a way to move goods as fast and as cheaply as they have in the past. This logjam will be especially perilous, economists say, if competition for truckers pushes up prices so quickly that the country faces uncontrolled inflation, which can easily lead to a recession.
“This is slowing down the economy already,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group. “If it takes me a week instead of two days to ship products from point A to B, I’m losing potential business.”
At TDDS Technical Institute, an independent trucker school in central Ohio where Blocksom has considered enrolling, veteran teachers say they have never seen it this bad. They think there are closer to 100,000 truck driver openings.