“If your wheels aren’t turning, then you’re not earning,” goes a common saying among the trucking community. For many drivers, this statement now represents their reality, as a growing number of them are finding it more difficult to stay on the road. A combination of low pay, a lack of incentives and the health risks that come with the trucking lifestyle contribute to the national driver shortage, which, according to the American Trucking Association (ATA), now amounts to almost 80,000 unfilled positions. If nothing is done to alleviate this shortage, companies will need to recruit up to 1 million drivers within the next 10 years, the ATA estimates.

While it may seem that the solution to the shortage is simply to recruit more drivers, this overly simplified tactic may be contributing to the problem. In fact, the most effective way to get more drivers on the road is to focus on the health and well-being of the industry’s current drivers, and to reward trusted veterans instead of relying on new recruits to fill the gap.

What’s Fueling the Shortage?

As a professional driver with over 25 years of experience, I can tell you that this profession is not for everyone. The trucking industry is both competitive and highly demanding. Many drivers report feeling overworked, overstressed, sleep deprived and socially isolated as a result of their job. The lifestyle itself often deters new drivers from joining the profession, and for those who do go through with training and obtain their commercial driver’s license (CDL), nine out of 10 will quit within a year of their start date. New drivers don’t always comprehend the demands of the job before accepting the position, and after a few cross-country hauls, many quit and go home.

The long hours and sedentary lifestyle also contribute to health issues for drivers, causing some to fail their Department of Transportation (DOT) medical exams. Of the 3.6 million drivers in the U.S., it’s estimated that up to 55% of them have been issued a DOT medical card that only qualifies them for one year or less. Depending on the reason for their medical disqualification, a driver could lose their job once this card expires, either temporarily or permanently.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate the driver shortage. While freight demand has increased with more consumers ordering their products online, driver resignations are also up, leaving fewer workers to move that product. The rise in resignations could be due in part to the average age of most professional drivers (55 years old) and the fact that many are retiring early or approaching retirement. Other drivers have resigned to protect themselves against contracting COVID-19, especially those who are at higher risk of complications from the virus due to comorbidities that are common in the trucking industry, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and digestive issues.

How Can We Get More Drivers on the Road?

The solution to these problems will likely require a change in how companies hire new drivers and incentivize current ones. By creating an environment that supports professional drivers, we can keep more of them on the road and earning for longer.

The first step is to focus on driver retention before recruitment. Studies show that it can cost between $8,000 to $20,000 to lose just one driver. The cost of recruiting and training a new driver, can itself cost up to $12,000. For a fraction of that cost, carriers can help current drivers stay or get back in the driver’s seat. Most of these drivers have a good driving record, but need help qualifying for their DOT medical card.

Next, carriers need to ensure that they are compensating professional drivers with competitive pay and benefits packages. If you’re not paying your drivers well, they will leave, or worse, go work for a competitor. To avoid this scenario and save on recruitment costs, carriers should be investing in their workforce. In return, the company gains the experience, loyalty and growth that a well-cared-for team of drivers inevitably brings. Once the word gets out that you take care of your drivers, your reputation will attract the highest quality recruits with less effort.

Most importantly, carriers need to prioritize the health and wellness of their drivers and provide them with resources to maintain that support. This can take the form of health coaching, meal planning or tips for staying active while on the go. Companies might challenge their drivers to do pushups or other exercises while their truck is being loaded, suggest healthy meal alternatives at truck stops or even incentivize healthier choices with cash rewards or other perks.

Carriers know that it’s more cost-effective to invest in truck maintenance than to let a fleet fall into disrepair. The same is true for drivers. Invest in their maintenance, and they will stay healthier and on the road for longer.

The professional driver shortage is causing our industry to rethink its relationships with drivers and reposition itself to be more driver-centric. To capitalize on this trend and set themselves up for success and longevity, carriers need to focus on these ideas in every facet of how they do business, but especially in the way they recruit and retain our most precious commodity — our drivers. With a renewed focus on those behind the wheel, we can overcome the driver shortage and create a healthier, happier workforce that gets from point A to B more efficiently and effectively. There’s nothing to lose, and so much to gain.