Driver retention was the surprising top story of 2021

December 30, 2021

Chuck Robinson


At first it didn’t seem possible. It was tough to believe what we had just heard. In March, during her nomination hearing to become deputy secretary of transportation, Polly Trottenberg fielded a question about the so-called truck driver shortage by zeroing in on the key issue at play.

“I’m coming from a city where we get over 90% of our goods via truck,” Trottenberg said. “We certainly recognize what a crucial industry that is. We will work with you not only on driver recruitment but also retention. I know one of the challenges in the trucking industry is that drivers often come in and get trained and then it is hard to retain them.”

Her comments echoed the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association’s position on the issue. In short, pay drivers for their time not just on the road but also waiting to load and unload and treat them well. Do that and there is no “driver shortage.”

It seemed like a fluke. Did anyone else at the White House know what she was saying? But then new Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made his “leaky bucket” comment on the issue at a July trucking roundtable discussion. They were doubling down on the concept.

It doesn’t matter how many people the industry recruits to be truck drivers if the industry is set up so that most of them will be chased off, Buttigieg said.

“It strikes me that another way to think of it is something of a leaky bucket, and that no matter how many people we pour into the industry for a moment, it’s not going to do us much good unless the jobs are reliable enough, secure enough and stable enough that people want to remain within the industry,” Buttigieg said.

When Meera Joshi, acting administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, spoke with the OOIDA Board of Directors at its fall meeting in November, the emphasis remained driver retention. She argued for the means to quantify the driver’s experience on the road, to detail their work life and determine how that affects highway safety. What percentage of a drivers work week is unpaid time, she asked.

The mainstream media is beginning to listen, too, and that is part of why I think driver retention was the biggest story of 2021. That’s my call despite the other huge stories of the year:

The devil is in the details, of course, so OOIDA and its members need to be involved in the discussion on driver retention. However, there seems to be an opportunity for making positive, important changes to benefit professional truck drivers. LL


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Chuck Robinson formerly was senior copy editor for a weekly trade publication serving the fresh produce industry. He has served trade publications, horticultural journals and community newspapers for 25 years.