Is driver shortage real? Nope.
For decades, economists have been discussing threadbare the concept of “full employment,” the ideal situation for overall prosperity. But never in economic history, no nation has achieved that status. Desirable but unattained. This inability to boast of such a romantic status has not deterred any nation from pursuing that “holy grail.”
Similar is the case with the driver shortage. It is perpetual, has not been, and cannot be eliminated. Noises, however, will continue to reverberate. The latest International Road Union (IRU) report on the topic is one such laborious text. None can deny that there is no driver shortage anywhere in the world.
Does it hurt the economic growth badly? Yes and no. Yes, it hurts growth. Badly? No. It is a seasonal phenomenon. There is a hue and cry among stakeholders: mostly the rich truckers lobby group at regular intervals and the end-users, manufacturers of tangible goods, who outsource logistics/transport services.
What is the rationale behind driver shortage? Poor working and living conditions. Just not in India but across the globe. On the working front, specifically, the payment mode: not for the time spent, but on the kilometer-driven. The hitch in this km-based remuneration model is that truck drivers have to pay for the inefficiencies of 3PLs whose maturity is nothing to crow about. Unfair, yes. Barring India, harassment by highway authorities is almost non-existent and unheard of.
It is still a paying proposition for wannabe truck drivers everywhere. While the educated stay away from getting into truck cabins to steer on the Indian highways, no such complexity is noticeable outside India. Thanks to its lifestyle, the educated have no hesitation in looking at trucking as a career option. The shortage stems from aging drivers opting out of the driving career, thus shrinking the supply of freshers. Always there is a demand-supply mismatch. Whenever there is a severe crunch, stakeholders invariably find a solution.
Take India, for instance. Well-known Ramesh Agarwal of Agarwal Packers & Movers is credited with the view that for every 1000 trucks, there are hardly 700 odd drivers. That was his contention almost a decade ago. Even the government concedes that there is a 22% shortage.
Nonetheless, remedial measures came in multiple forms to address the challenge. Primarily, the truck payload was spiked up, enabling existing trucks to carry extra load, thus preventing access to more trucks. Good thought, indeed. Secondly, higher payload trucks — up to 55 tonnes — entered the scenario. Once again, instead of the more popular 16-tonner commercial vehicles, the higher payload of 35, 44, and 55-tonners addressed the driver challenge. Instead of three trucks of 16 tonners, smarter operators moved to a single 55-tonner, and in the process, the need for drivers came down from three to one. Another masterstroke. Better highways with seamless borders made driving smoother and faster, a joy for the men behind the wheels.
The much-publicized and well-mounted multimodal transportation policy — clubbing road, rail, and waterways — to improve the logistic efficiency is a multi-pronged approach to addressing the climate change battle to achieve zero carbon emission by 2070 if not earlier as India’s commitment to the global fora level and reduce the ballooning oil import bill are noteworthy; in a way, this is a quiet and subtle move to reduce the dependence on road transport and indirectly the driver shortage problem.
One cannot be blind to the modal shift from road to rail over the past few years: particularly since the pandemic. Not a single day passes with the railways boasting and posting of ferrying more and more loads of all types of materials across India. The government-owned railways are waking up, at last, to think about commercial viability. One thing is social commitment to move men at affordable or even below the cost of operation. At the same time, freight can fetch better revenue provided timely delivery is assured. The Dedicated Freight Corridor, though delayed, is the answer to that question. Waterways, still in their diapers, like railways, are much cheaper than road transport and more environmental-friendly. By the way, the driver shortage challenge is addressed indirectly.
Cribbing is a pastime for the human race. Transport vertical stakeholders and end-users are no exception. Let them puncture the ether regularly. Their fear is about the new global buzzword: supply chain disruption. The driver shortage is a tiny element in the whole matrix. The International Road Union is performing its duty to alert of possible future eventuality. Thanks, IRU! But, the driver shortage is not of the pandemic proportion. It echoes what its constituent members cry hoarse.
There is another set of self-flagellation specialists claiming driver shortage is leading to operational cost escalation due to higher compensation demand by drivers and therefore adds fuel to inflation. Hold on, friends! There are several other elements to the inflationary dissertation. Don’t lose sleep, please!