Where are truck drivers desperately needed? In the US

CHICAGO (Reuters) - As the U.S. economy firms, with consumer demand and housing starts rising, trucking companies are finding themselves scrambling to find drivers to bring goods to market.

The industry is short about 35,000 truck drivers, according to industry lobby group the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

The shortage has left major carriers struggling, pushed up freight rates, and could contribute to an increase in inflation, analysts said. The shortfall could grow to around 240,000 drivers by 2020 if it is not addressed, the ATA said.

Derek Leathers, president of Werner Enterprises Inc, said the company needs several thousand new drivers in the next year. "We have freight today we can't haul because we don't have the capacity," he said.

According to DAT Solutions, which provides data to the transport sector, the driver shortage helped push the rate per mile for freight shipped on long-term contracts up 8 per cent on the year in August, to around US$1.80 a mile. Rates in the spot market, where customers move freight at short notice, rose 14 per cent to US$1.92.

Industry analysts predict that manufacturers will complain of problems moving goods when reporting third quarter earnings as the peak holiday season nears.

Eventually, the increase will hit consumers, said Jason Seidl, a transportation analyst at Cowen & Co.

Trucking companies often experience driver shortages as the economy heats up because drivers find construction and factory work that don't require living on the road. But company officials said this is more than a cyclical shift, linking the current shortfall to also regulatory and demographic changes that are creating a structural change.

Federal regulations as of 2013 have limited the hours truckers can drive, and a government system tracking driver records since December 2010 has deterred drivers with checkered safety records.

Demographic changes are compounding the problem. The average truck driver is 55, and more drivers are retiring. Not enough younger workers are signing up, forcing companies to offer signing bonuses from US$500 to US$12,000 to new drivers.