The nationwide worker shortage in the trucking industry was an issue even before the pandemic. According to U.S. Xpress, one of the nation’s largest truckload carriers, the industry needs at least 80,000 new truckers in the U.S. (*Forbes Jan. 21, 2022 )
In Idaho, truck drivers have long been an in-demand occupation. High demand can at least partially be attributed to the state’s location, making trucking a better option than other forms of transportation.
Even with the Lewiston seaport, Idaho is basically landlocked and not served by an international airport. Though rail transportation is used for bulk agricultural commodities, seasonal commodity shipments do not allow for consistent rail line contracts.
Idaho commodities trucked from the fields to the factory for value-added products, range from cheese to frozen vegetables and much more. The value-added products are trucked once again from the factories to warehouses or inland port locations. If headed overseas, goods are placed in containers, trucked to the seaport and moved by crane directly onto the ship. This one-time crating not only saves time but ensures less handling and prevents product damage.
Considering Idaho’s small population of 1.9 million, most manufacturing products leave the state for domestic and international markets. Idaho’s most recent global export estimate for 2021 is $3.8 billion (source: trade.gov). Semiconductors and industrial products make up the largest share of exports sent overseas from Idaho, followed by agricultural products, based on value. In turn, the United States cannot manufacture all that its consumers want and need, resulting in overseas imports of $6.2 billion to Idaho. These import/export values fluctuate based on the value of the U.S. dollar in relation to international currency from other countries.
Demand for delivery truck drivers has intensified in the retail sector with serious implications for both the Treasure Valley and the northern part of the state. Amazon opened a fulfillment center in the Spokane Valley a few miles west of the Idaho state line, just months before the Nampa opening in November 2020, and its many sorting stations throughout the Treasure Valley. Amazon drivers must move quickly and efficiently, but do not necessarily require a commercial driver’s license.
In 2021 there were 1,660 job postings across Idaho for light truck or delivery services drivers. Median wage for those drivers is about $35,000 according to Burning Glass.
An increase in online shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic added to the challenge with almost 9,500 unique job postings throughout Idaho in 2021 for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers. These positions earn a median wage of around $65,000 according to Burning Glass. Long-haul drivers traditionally earn more than local delivery drivers due to the demands of being away from home and traversing unknown cities.
Occupational variety. Many truck driving jobs throughout Idaho are along regular routes and involve customer service. As soon as the driver unloads the current order, the customer places the next order. In some cases, the truck driver does the onloading and offloading but in others the delivery is dropped off and only requires a signature.
Several vertically integrated food manufacturers throughout southern Idaho hire drivers as employees and maintain their own fleet of trucks. These companies offer a set wage and a plethora of benefits that allow independent truckers to forego leasing their own trucks and the need to bid for contracts.
Other workforce challenges. A high rate of potential retirees in Idaho — an estimated one in three of the existing labor force — could retire within the next five to 10 years. Long COVID-19 symptoms could put some drivers out of commission temporarily or permanently, as they must pass annual medical checks, which is a requirement for drivers of all ages as a safety measure. Insurance is high for younger drivers coming out of high school, which may discourage them from the industry.
When it comes to over-the-road drivers or long-haul, experienced drivers earn the most money in the trade due to wage structures determined by miles driven, with required downtime after 10-11 hours driving. New drivers are not typically given the longer routes that provide the greatest return. With inflation and housing costs rising, the lower cost of trucking may not be sustainable.
Future Projections. By 2030, about 2,500 more drivers will be needed across the state to account for population and business growth, which does not include backfilling the churn from retirements and exits from the occupation. Including that churn, the total annual openings over the next 10 years in Idaho is estimated at 2,500 drivers or 25,000 drivers.
A continued dependence on trucking for Idaho is forecast to remain about the same considering it is the least expensive, most dependable and most efficient method of moving goods in this geographical area. Automation may alleviate a share of the labor-intensive needs in the distant future, but trucking jobs are not expected to be replaced entirely any time soon.
Solutions are already in progress. A number of ad hoc groups of manufacturers, transportation companies and government officials have been meeting for more than a decade to discuss all aspects of the industry, not only staffing. Brainstorming best practices and locations, interstate exchanges that would benefit from inter-modal facilities both into and out of Idaho, and ideas for making goods delivery more efficient are all on the table.
A newly implemented registered apprenticeship driver program should help attract new entrants to the labor market. Trucking companies now take driving simulators to high school career fairs to give students hands-on experience. The apprenticeship program allows an 18-year-old to drive state-to-state accompanied by an experienced driver. Some companies pay more in insurance to cover a younger driver’s lack of experience as a way to shore up the next generation.
Jan.Roeser@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 735-2500 ext. 3639