The supply chain problems plaguing the economy have placed a spotlight on the health of a long overlooked — and sometimes derided — industry: trucking. Unfortunately, the field has no easy fix; it will take sustained industry and government action to get trucking to the state the economy needs to prosper.

The trucking industry, though a vital piece of the national economy, was already facing head winds before the pandemic due to an aging workforce. The average age of a long-haul truck driver in 2018 was 55 years old. The pandemic led many drivers to accelerate retirement plans, leaving trucking companies even more starved of workers than they were previously. Chris Spear, president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, told me that the shortfall has increased from 61,500 drivers before the pandemic to 80,000 today. That’s a lot of trucks sitting idle for lack of drivers.

The industry had also struggled for years to meet the rising demand for drivers. Drivers were traditionally White men who never graduated from college. That demographic has been shrinking for decades, and neither women nor non-White workers have flocked to the field to fill in the gap. The industry’s problems have been compounded by federal rules that prohibit people under 21 from driving interstate rigs. That means that young people who know that college isn’t right for them can’t enter the field and must start other careers instead. It’s hard to get someone to switch gears once they’ve started acquiring other skill sets.

The industry is aware of these challenges and is trying to address them. Darrel Harris, president of Yellow Corp., is spearheading a pilot program to recruit more non-White drivers from urban communities. “Drive for Diversity” will target Chicago-area job fairs to find new sources of workers and will expand to five other communities if it proves successful. Harris, the first Black president of a major trucking company, is passionate about the initiative. As a man who never earned a college degree, he believes others can follow his path from dock loader to president.

Those are good efforts, but the government must support them if trucking is to fill its role in the economy. Spear believes that passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill will help with driver recruitment and retention. “Traffic bottlenecks cost over $74 billion a year in lost productivity,” he told me. “That added stress induces many drivers to quit. Reducing congestion will reduce the time drivers spent stuck in traffic, which will get goods to market faster and increase driver job satisfaction.”

The infrastructure bill also includes another industry priority, the DRIVE-Safe Act. That bill, which has bipartisan support, would repeal the federal prohibition on 18- to 20-year-olds driving trucks between states. Adopting this proposal would immediately permit as many as 3,000 young people who are currently driving intrastate routes to be trained to drive the long-haul routes the country needs. This would also make trucking more appealing to young workers, potentially increasing the driving pool dramatically over time.

The federal government could make the driver shortage worse with its proposed vaccine mandate. The trucking industry opposes the measure, noting that long-haul drivers spend most of their working time alone in the cab and hence pose little risk to others. There’s also the issue of how truckers operate, moving from place to place rather than reporting to one location every day. That makes it difficult and costly to implement the Biden administration’s proposed testing alternative to vaccination. Even if a small percentage of drivers quit rather than comply with the mandate, a spike in resignations could snarl the nation’s economy even further. Spear notes that Canada’s recent vaccine mandate did not include truckers, tacitly recognizing these challenges.

Mobilizing the National Guard, as some in the administration have discussed, would also do little to ameliorate the short-term supply chain problems. Driving large trucks and unloading shipping containers safely and efficiently are skills that require training. It’s unlikely that there are many National Guardsmen with those skills who aren’t already on the job.

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None of this will solve the country’s supply chain problems overnight. The fact is that consumer demand for goods is way up — unsurprisingly, since the government gave people hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus checks that many didn’t need. An already creaking system has been wrecked by a sudden influx of goods to move. The entire supply chain network won’t expand to the capacity and workforce needed to meet the new demand overnight.

The current crisis shows how much of the country relies on unheralded workers, much as the pandemic’s onset exposed the essential work that nurses and grocery clerks perform. Trucking is every bit as crucial to our national health as those professions and deserves equal attention from policymakers at all levels.