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There’s no question that 2020 and 2021 brought plenty of upheaval and numerous challenges. With a pandemic, economic recession, and unrest, 2020 was described as a “Confluence of Crises,” and the summer of 2021 was titled, the “Summer of Discontent,” a far cry from the pandemic relief so many had hoped for.

And the American Trucking Associations estimated that for the freight industry in particular, the driver shortage would reach an all-time high of over 80,000 drivers.

But what about 2022?

As we look ahead to the coming year, small carriers and owner-operators are best served by understanding the shifting trends and impending challenges so they can adequately prepare for what’s to come in the freight transportation industry.

1. COVID-19 Related Driver Constraints

Some think that the freight market can fully recover by the end of 2021 as carriers and owner-operators begin to work at near pre-pandemic levels. FTR Transportation Intelligence forecasted some improvements in the market, and even as of November 1, 2021, they reported that freight activity in the spot market is the strongest it’s been since May.

However, that same week, FTR Transportation Intelligence also reported a 4.8 percent drop in freight activity on refrigerated trucks, or reefers. While volume remains roughly the strongest it has been since the onset of the pandemic, decreases in volume may demonstrate a constraint in available drivers.

As the number of available drivers remains limited, capacity will continue to be tight. While figures in the spot market are promising, FTR’s Vice President, Avery Vise warned:

“If you look at the data from the spot market — and I’m sure many of you are following that — you might assume that we’ve already fully recovered. But the spot market is only about a third of the total truck freight market. More important, it mostly is an indicator of disruption. And, of course, we all know that we’ve had disruption in spades this year.”

Perhaps one of the major reasons for these potential constraints is a sharp decline in new Commercial Drivers’ License (CDL) drivers. Social distancing and state-level testing limitations due to the COVID-19 virus have seriously impacted the number of new drivers able to get out on the road. Fleet Owner shared that driving schools are graduating fewer new drivers, all while the recession — which was directly caused by the spread of the pandemic — forced other small fleets, owner-operators, and carriers out of business.

It’s estimated that the current driver shortage has reached approximately 80,000 drivers. This shortage is up over 30 percent from the driver shortage figures reported in 2019. There’s also the potential that COVID-19 vaccine mandates may contribute to a depletion of the trucking industry workforce in 2022. While currently, the vaccine mandate exempts truck drivers from requiring vaccination, forecasters still project that by 2023 there’ll be a shortage of 100,000 drivers; a figure that could climb to 160,000 by 2028.

Some drivers may have retired or left the industry thanks to the challenges COVID-19 presented for owner-operators and small carriers alike, and without as many new drivers able to step up and take their place, the shortage is expected to continue into 2022 and beyond.

2. Drivers Taken Off the Road

Though freight rates and economic growth are expected to remain steady in 2022, finding drivers will continue to be challenging. Why? More drivers are being taken off the road, flagged with drug and alcohol violations.

According to Trucking Info, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s new Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse has also contributed to some tightness in the supply of carriers available to haul freight. As of August 1, 2021, “more than 82,000 drivers were flagged with violations since the database cranked up in January 2020, with nearly 67,000 still barred from driving.”

The idea behind the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and their Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse is simple: Improving road safety. It’s “an online database that gives employers and government agencies real-time access to information about CDL driver drug and alcohol program violations.”

The Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse went live on January 6, 2020. After the first weeks of operation, the FMCSA reported detecting and identifying almost 8,000 positive substance abuse tests of commercial drivers by February 21, 2020, with more than 650,000 registrants filing through the Clearinghouse by that data.

By November of 2020, the database had accumulated 1.5 million users — 90 percent of whom work as drivers. In the first eleven months of the Clearinghouse, the organization conducted 2 million queries, which led to approximately 50,000 violations. Of those violations:

  • 85 percent were for positive drug tests
  • 12 percent were for refusing to take the test
  • 3 percent were for drivers already listed in the Clearinghouse

Of these, 10 percent of early violators had already returned to work by November of 2020, but this still means that the freight industry could lose about 52,000 drivers per year.

3. Supply Chain Disruptions

Many experts in the freight industry are expecting that existing supply chain disruptions will continue into 2022 and beyond. As reported in Transport Topics, Association of Supply Chain Management Executive Vice President Douglas Kent shared that addressing overall supply chain problems will take time. “We’re going to be counting it in years, not in months and certainly not weeks and days,” he said. “Some of the concerns about how you manage the new norms will require some strategic resolutions that are not quick fixes.”

Of course, many of these supply chain disruptions have been amplified by the continued spread of COVID-19 and its variants, and the trucking and freight industry’s persistent, increasing driver shortage, as well as rising shipping costs will also play into supply chain issues.

The reason? Sales are up. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that retail sales in July of 2021 fell by 1.1 percent compared to June, but they rose 15.8 percent compared to July of 2020. Even with this slight monthly dip, the economy has been progressing positively, and as National Retail Federation Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz shared, “The consumer has continued to be resilient, and recent price increases brought on by constraints in the supply chain have not dampened the robust demand seen during the past year. If retailers could find more inventory, they could sell it.”

Retail demand is up, but with ongoing COVID-19-related disruptions to the supply chain, this could make for an interesting year for those in the freight industry. With delays in shipments from abroad, there is an increased demand for fast and reliable deliveries once goods reach the mainland. This puts more pressure on carriers who are simultaneously constrained by federal Hours of Service (HOS) restrictions. Supply chain disruptions can also influence shippers’ and receivers’ scheduling practices, and may exacerbate issues related to the underutilization of long-haul drivers.

4. Climate Change

There’s no denying the increase in the number of natural disasters affecting North America from one year to the next. As shared by the World Meteorological Organization, the number of natural disasters has increased by a factor of five over the last 50 years, with climate change and more extreme weather as the leading cause for this increase. What’s more, three of the ten most costly disasters happened in 2017:

    • Hurricane Harvey
    • Hurricane Maria
    • Hurricane Irma

35 percent of the total economic losses from those top 10 disasters globally are attributed to these three hurricanes alone.

With an increase in the number of natural disasters affecting North America each year, it is fair to predict that 2022 will continue the trend. Small carriers and owner-operators need to be prepared for more natural disasters in the year ahead.

When natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires happen, residents who live close to the devastation are instructed to evacuate. But those in the freight industry who deliver important shipments are expected to head directly into the affected region, keeping freight moving and bringing life-saving supplies to those managing relief efforts.

This isn’t just a handful of heroic drivers. It’s a proven fact: A large ratio of small carriers and owner-operators are willing to aid in relief after natural disasters. One study polled drivers to discover just how willing they would be to travel into these kinds of dangerous situations. This study revealed that no matter the circumstances, from fire to flooding, never did more than 50 percent of respondents say they would try to avoid extreme situations.

With no clear solution for climate change in sight, owner-operators and small carriers alike need to be prepared for more of the same, which could mean:

      • Re-routing, even at the last minute
      • Hours of Service (HOS) waivers from the FMCSA
      • Higher rates, subsidized by the government to provide relief

5. Transportation Industry-Specific Economic Risks

Across the board, the transportation industry is facing four specific economic crises, which will continue into 2022:

      1. The Covid-19 pandemic
      2. Labor supply
      3. Consumer spending
      4. Inflation

According to Aver Vise, these economic factors will continue to influence freight and the small carriers and owner-operators who transport it throughout the next year. Here’s what you need to know about each.

The Pandemic

We’ll likely be seeing the effects of COVID-19 for a very long time; at least well into next year. As of September 2021, there were still more than 10 million job openings, which is the most on record during the last century. This creates labor shortages, and for those still out of work, it means less spending. Both of these factors not only impact the overall economy but the need for small carriers and owner-operators to transport consumer goods as well.

Labor Supply

We have already discussed driver constraints, but how does this shortage in labor supply affect the economy? There’s an astonishing amount of turnover in the freight industry, and nine out of ten drivers who start the year as a driver leave the industry by the end of that same year. This places financial constraints on small carriers who might manage a handful of vehicles, as they have to contend with:

    1. Paying for additional licensing for new drivers
    2. Time spent discovering missing knowledge of specific routes and clients
    3. Training for new drivers

Additionally, rates are increasing, which can be a major economic burden for small carriers. New drivers are looking for things like better compensation, better hourly rates, fixed salaries, pay per load, and more.

Many potential new drivers are still sidelined, and around 50,000 drivers have ventured off to start their own small business and take matters into their own hands as owner-operators. This certainly helps with the labor shortage and can mean better pay for new owner-operators who are choosing to run their own businesses.  It’s projected that this tight market will drive up contract rates for those in the freight industry.

Consumer Spending

Freight experts are keeping a close eye on consumer behavior. Americans have been shut in for the larger portion of nearly two years, and are eager to leave the shelter of their homes to visit other states, stay in hotels, and eat in restaurants.

With this comes the expectation that consumers will shift some of their spending away from retail goods and more towards the service industry. This could potentially move consumer spending away from large freight; however, carriers will likely see increased demand and freight opportunities coming from restaurants, bars, resorts, and other businesses in the service industry.

Inflation

The Consumer Price Index has surged at levels not seen in nearly four decades. Inflation is elevated compared to the norm, which means consumers’ dollars aren’t going as far as they usually would.

Excluding food and energy which are known to be volatile markets, inflation is still up 4 percent over the past year, which is very high compared to the last forty years or so. Consumers buying fewer goods could mean less freight needing to be transported across the country.

Navigating These Challenges

How can those in the freight transportation industry deal with these impending challenges? Having a trucking business plan can make a huge difference.

Xpress Technologies is here to help independent owner-operators and small carriers face these struggles. Our mobile app optimizes freight for you, based on your route, vehicle, and freight preferences and provides you with better recommendations the longer you use it, which means you can search for great freight at great rates. We created this app to solve existing and ongoing problems we see in the industry. Since so many drivers are leaving the industry due to a lack of transparency and frustration with traditional, legacy load boards when it comes to securing freight, we created the Xpress Technologies App to counteract these challenges and help keep drivers on the road. With the Xpress Technologies App, what you see is what you get.

Our brokers are available as an added, extra resource in cases where carriers prefer to speak directly with brokers. Xpress Technologies values transparency in our interactions with carriers and owner-operators.

Plus, when dealing with challenges like the COVID-19 crisis, natural disasters, and more, when a disruption occurs, owner-operators and small carriers can share their live location to increase transparency and trust throughout the delivery process, enhancing the relationship between brokers, shippers, and carriers for long-term, profitable business relationships that serve everyone. We’re here to be part of your lifelong trucking company business plan.