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IRU driver shortage report shows demographic catastrophe is hitting road transport

The demographic gap in the driving profession is alarming. Without radical action, the shortage of lorry drivers globally will double in the coming years.

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A global report on the driver shortage problem has revealed that in most of the countries surveyed, the percentage of drivers under 25 years old is 12% or less.

The latest report by the International Road Transport Union (IRU) has found that only in China and Uzbekistan does the youngest age group account for more than 12% of all drivers. In the case of the former it is 17%, and in the latter, 25%.

The latest IRU study, based on surveys conducted among 4.7 thousand transport companies in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, underscores a significant issue.

The low percentage of the youngest age group among all employed drivers is linked to demographic challenges and an ageing society. However, the situation in the transport sector is more severe than in other market sectors.

The percentage of people under 25 working in transport is lower than their share in the total population of every surveyed country except Mexico, and the aforementioned Uzbekistan and China. This indicates that the profession is less attractive to young people compared to other career paths.

At the same time, with a low proportion of young people, most regions have a high share of drivers over 55 years of age. Not only is the share of this age group in road transport much higher than the economy’s average, but it also significantly exceeds the under-25 age group’s share.

“This means that the shortage will increase in the near future as the pool of young drivers, limited in number, will not be able to replace those retiring,” the report states.

Collapse in Europe

The situation in Europe is particularly dramatic. The average age of a driver on the Old Continent is 47 years. As many as one-third of lorry drivers are aged 55 and over, surpassing the share of this age group among the professionally active population in Europe. The proportion of the youngest drivers is also critically low – only 5% of lorry drivers on the Old Continent are under 25 years old.

The situation in Russia is as severe as in Europe, with the youngest drivers making up only 4% of those driving lorries. And the oldest group constitutes 31% of all lorry drivers.

For comparison, countries such as Argentina, China, and Mexico have a much smaller percentage of drivers aged 55 and over, more closely aligning with the share of this age group in the overall economically active population in these countries.

Although the future in Europe looks bleak regarding driver availability, examples from other regions indicate that the negative trend can be reversed. In the United States, the share of young drivers under 25 years of age increased from 6% in 2020 to over 8% in 2022.

Women to the rescue?

One way to address the chronic shortage of lorry drivers and to improve the demographic structure of those employed in this profession is to increase the activation of women.

In almost all surveyed countries, less than 6% of lorry drivers are women, which is significantly lower than the percentage of women employed in the transport sector.

The only country where women constitute more than 6% of all drivers employed is the United States, where women make up 8% of lorry drivers. For comparison, in Europe, it is 4%, and in China, 6%.

Dark clouds on the horizon?

According to IRU estimates, at the end of 2023, the surveyed countries will face a total shortage of as many as 3 million drivers. The organisation estimates that by 2028, this number could increase to 7 million.

In some areas, the lack of drivers will become almost apocalyptic. In China, every fifth position will be unfilled, leading to a shortage of approximately 4.9 million drivers. In Europe, about 745,000 or 17% of positions will be vacant. It is worth noting that during the pandemic, Europe experienced approximately 450,000 cases of missing lorry drivers.

In our region, this shortage is currently less severe due to the general economic slowdown and the resulting decline in demand for transport services.

Nevertheless, the economic recovery, so eagerly awaited, may turn out to be a problem when it becomes clear that there is a shortage of people behind the wheel, which will translate into increased wages for drivers. Consequently, this will lead to higher carrier costs and prices for final goods.

Without a radical change in the situation, the future looks very bleak. A number of companies in Central Europe are beginning to recruit employees from the Far East and Central Asia, i.e., regions that, as indicated by the data from the IRU report, boast a slightly better demographic structure of drivers.

Nevertheless, the fact that the shortage of drivers is a pressing issue throughout the broadly understood “first world” means that Ventral European carriers seeking Asian drivers will compete with countries that can offer them better financial conditions and which are likely to be the country of first choice for non-European immigrants.