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Missouri truckers find themselves in the driver's seat amid national shortage

A national shortage of truckers is driving a reckoning within the industry.
Flickr via Dawolf at https://flic.kr/p/Gy7C9L
A national shortage of truckers is driving a reckoning within the industry.

St. Louis trucker Hugo Rolin adores the open road. But near the end of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, he made the tough decision to walk away from the industry that employed him for most of the last 20 years.

Blame burnout, which Rolin attributes to relaxed regulations for people working to transport “essential” supplies during the pandemic.

“You could theoretically drive a 21-hour shift if that's what you wanted,” he said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “If you had essential freight, medical equipment, or even food and groceries — shippers and brokers and everybody needed so much freight, so fast, all the time, that it burned me out. It was just too much for me to do.”

Rolin wasn’t alone. In October 2021, around the time he was weighing the possibility of leaving the industry, the American Trucking Association announced that the U.S. would finish the year with an estimated shortage of 80,000 drivers — a shortage that could rise as high as 160,000 in the next decade.

The report reignited popular interest in the plight of truckers and how to keep them at the wheel, in positions that remain essential to the nation’s economy.

But the job can be grindingly difficult. For truckers like Rolin, keeping steady hands and wakeful eyes isn’t so easy when they’re expected to drive more than ten hours a day — or through the night. Truckers are limited to a certain number of driving hours per shift, and they have to strategize while traversing unfamiliar locations. Rolin points out that no driver wants to run out of hours before finding a safe place to park, sleep and use a public bathroom. But that scenario happens all too often.

“Sometimes, you have to sleep in the day so that way you can drive at night, and it is very, very difficult, especially in the summertime,” he said. “There's many people that do it, day in, and day out. But having to change your sleep cycle does add to drivers being overweight; having to drink a lot of coffee to stay up at night, or to be able to drive those extra 50 miles — it does add up at the end of the day..”

After leaving his trucking job, Rolin spent 2021 as an instructor at St. Louis Community College. But today, he’s back in the driver’s seat as a trucker for UPS. He says the experience has raised his expectations of what companies need to do to attract — or lure back — good drivers.

One of the biggest draws for Rolin was the option to alternate between long-haul routes and local deliveries. Another perk: He now shares the cab with a driving partner, which has lessened the physical and mental stress of driving.

“Being on the road by myself,” he noted, “is not something that I want to do.”

Rolin’s story is familiar to Tom Crawford, who has served as the president of the Missouri Trucking Association since 2006. From the position of its member companies, he says, the driver shortage is a complex problem without an easy — or fast — solution.

Although salaries are increasing, Crawford noted that the industry is losing a generation of drivers to retirement. At the same time, experienced drivers like Rolin are leaving the industry, citing high stress and lack of autonomy.

Crawford suggests that creating trucking jobs that fit with drivers’ lives, including the flexibility to stay close to home, may be one answer to the current crisis.

“There's an element of the driver population that's searching, trying to find that fit,” Crawford continued, and added, “Hopefully, that kind of focus is going to pay benefits to them long-term.”

In the meantime, there is some indication that more drivers are entering the industry. Missouri was among the states highlighted in an April 4 statement from the Biden administration addressing the driver shortage in the trucking industry. It said Missouri raised its trucker employment rate by more than 8% over the past year, one of just five states to do so.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowskiand Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Danny Wicentowski