The coronavirus pandemic has caused shortages in everything from toilet paper, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and food supply chains to more unexpected items like coins. And now, over a year into the pandemic, U.S. travelers may have a harder time finding gasoline because of a truck driver shortage.
Though there is not currently a low supply of crude oil or gasoline, an unfortunate ripple effect of the pandemic is that there’s a shortage of tanker truck drivers that deliver that fuel to gas stations.
In the early days of the pandemic—when state and local shutdowns closed businesses, schools, and offices—gasoline demand plummeted, causing many drivers to seek other work. But with millions of people getting vaccinated every day and driving again, demand is now back up to 97% of where it was around this time in 2019.
The National Tank Truck Carriers industry trade group estimates that approximately 20-25% of tank trucks will remain parked as the country heads into summer, compared to just 10% of trucks around the same time in 2019. NTTC’s Executive Vice President Ryan Streblow told CNN that the industry has been dealing with a truck driver shortage for a while now but that the pandemic “took that issue and metastasized it.”
“It certainly has grown exponentially,” he added.
Holly McCormick, vice president in charge of driver recruitment and retention at the Oklahoma-based tanker company Groendyke Transport, said it even resorted to hauling Amazon boxes just to keep drivers busy.
“A lot of drivers didn’t want to do the safety protocols,” said McCormick. “We’re also working with an aging workforce. Many said, ‘I might as well take it as a cue to retire.’”
Compounding the problem is that, unlike standard truck drivers, tanker truck drivers require a special certification. In addition to a commercial driver’s license, applicants must undergo weeks of training after being hired. And because the pandemic also temporarily closed driver schools, there’s also a shortage of new drivers to replace those who are aging or retiring.
Just before the pandemic started in January 2020, a new federal drug and alcohol clearinghouse was rolled out to identify truck drivers with prior violations or who had previously refused or failed drug tests. An additional 40,000-60,000 drivers were forced out of the national employment pool as a result.
Another issue plaguing the tanker truck industry is that it tends to be extremely difficult, laborious work that often produces high turnover rates.
Brad Fulton—director of research and analytics at Stay Metrics, a trucking recruiting and retention firm—said that even during “normal” times, driver turnover can run around 50% on an annual basis. However, the annual rate in April 2020 spiked to roughly 70%, as many drivers dropped out of the workforce to take jobs in more lucrative industries like construction.
Summer vacations also have the potential to exacerbate an already fraught situation. According to the Adobe Digital Economy Index, hotel bookings are bouncing back more quickly than airline bookings, suggesting that people are indeed eager to travel again—but are planning to drive to their destinations.
Vacation hotspots are likewise at the most at risk of shortages.
As it currently stands, the national average price of regular gas is around $2.89 per gallon, up more than 60% from the same time in 2020 when people weren’t driving. Some believe gas prices could potentially top out at $3 a gallon in the summer of 2021.
If the supply chain experiences disruptions such as Gulf Coast hurricanes or refinery fires, that number could rise even higher—putting a serious dent in consumer wallets and making it that much harder for people to fill up their tanks.