The myth that has existed in trucking for over 15 years is some year we will get into such an acute driver shortage that freight will be at a standstill and you will be lucky if a truck shows up to pick up anything you have to ship. In fact, many trucking company executives have parlayed that story into a reason why shippers should pay higher than market prices today for freight for fear that when that day comes only those who over paid in the past will be serviced.
That was 15 years ago and the time has yet to come and if you bought into the story you have "overpaid" for 15 years and the crunch (and your perceived promised reward) has yet to come. Of course, as always, the story has other aspects to it. I do not doubt that the driver pool is shrinking and people do not want to drive long haul trucks. However, the good news is the market is taking care of this problem in 4 ways:
Miniaturization: This phenomenon is everywhere whether it be in packaging, the product itself or the actual and complete disappearance of the the physical product. I bought a stereo for a new place I have and it consisted of a Jabra® Soulmate and my iphone. The entire thing can fit in the palm of my hand and it gives off as much sound as a stereo that came in 3 boxes 10 years ago. This would not be seen if you looked at GDP numbers or sales numbers of companies because from a revenue and profit standpoint, the company did as well as when they were selling massive boxes. However, from a freight standpoint, they can fit a months sales into 3 trucks. Or, better yet, it is all sent via UPS.
Of course, we all know this is happening in packaging and other aspects of the freight. And, the disappearance of freight is becoming very real with iPods, Kindles and now 3D printing.
Focus on Profit v. Revenue Growth of Shippers: I keep hearing that once the GDP gets to 3% we will have a massive shortage and I am not convinced. If you look at the financials of the major shippers you will find they are doing very well (as are the transportation companies). Why are they doing well? It is generally not a growth in product sales / revenue story but more of a growth in profit story. They are managing costs and increasing prices (despite the Government telling us there is no inflation). This means you cannot equate a great quarter to increased freight. It is not as connected as it was at one time.
Intermodal: This, of course, is the grandaddy of them all. The movement to intermodal continues and seems to be picking up speed. Shippers who were afraid of it just two years ago have capitulated and even segments of supply chains (i.e. inbound) which historically shunned this mode are now buying into it. Bottom line: This is the major counterweight to any type of driver shortage. This is gone beyond a nice "substitute" for truck freight and has now become the "category killer" for truck freight. Acceptable length of hauls (LOH) are decreasing (one bid wanted intermodal rates on lanes 400 miles or greater), service is increasing and overall people are moving so much freight over to intermodal that truck is really just catching the local P&D and interplant moves. P&D and interplant moves are nicely served by local niche players and the need for a nationwide network for a truckload carrier diminishes dramatically.
Economics 101: This is the final reason I am not worried. If the driver shortage becomes very acute and the demand exists driver wages will increase bringing more drivers into the market. I am a firm believer in market equilibrium and market clearing prices. Yes, driving is a hard job. However, as we have seen in the oil fields in North Dakota, people will do hard jobs if the pay is right. So, bottom line is, no need to pay "extra" today because if needed, you will absolutely have to pay extra tomorrow. And any sales person who tells you that because you paid extra now you won't have to pay extra later is either lying to you or just does not understand economics.
My conclusion: Watch the economy, watch the market, and watch your freight but do not buy into the scare of "pay up now" to be serviced later. It makes no economic sense and it makes no sense given the current situation of transportation companies.