Where have all the truck drivers gone?

The reality of big-rig truck driving is actually far from the picture painted in Smokey and the Bandit. (You younger readers can go Google it. Everyone should watch it at least once.) Still, there’s always been an employment market for people with the appropriate license and skills who are willing to drive tractor-trailers around the country’s highways. But now that market seems to be turning into a vacuum. Despite rising wages and benefits, trucking companies can’t seem to find enough drivers to fill all the open positions. This article at the WaPo seeks to explain why.

America has a massive shortage of truck drivers. Joyce Brenny, head of Brenny Transportation in Minnesota, increased driver pay 15 percent this year to try to attract more drivers. Many of her drivers now earn $80,000, she says, yet she still can’t find enough people for the job.

About 51,000 more drivers are needed to meet the demand from companies such as Amazon and Walmart that are shipping more goods across the country, according to the American Trucking Associations. The driver shortage is already leading to delayed deliveries and higher prices for goods that Americans buy. The ATA predicts that it’s likely to get worse in the coming years.

Many trucking companies are so desperate for drivers that they are offering signing bonuses and pay raises. So why don’t more Americans want this job? We asked truck drivers who have been doing the job anywhere from four months to 40 years for their views.

They have interviews with a number of drivers who all seem to have similar complaints. The lifestyle is hard and isolated. It’s hell on marriages and relationships. It’s unhealthy because you’re sitting all day and eating road food. And despite what some of the advertisements say, the average pay is nowhere near $80K or $100K. Most drivers make between $40K and $55K.

What happened to all those stories about driverless vehicles eliminating jobs for truck drivers? Congress was even carving out special exceptions for them in the bills which were supposed to hasten the development of this technology. According to the people inside the industry, that’s still a very long way off and nobody is counting on it. So they still need drivers, but the big trucking companies don’t pay very much and most of the “bonuses” they offer are impossible to cash in on.

Having known more than a few truckers in my life, there’s one factor which isn’t mentioned in the article but is probably a major cause of the decline. Many years ago it was still very possible for people to finance and purchase their own rig and get all the delivery jobs they could handle. They made all the profits and how much they could earn was based on how hard they were willing to work. Some did very well for themselves. But the advent of major trucking companies quickly drove those independent owner/operators out of business. Too many of them arranged for exclusive contracts with large customers at cut-rate prices, but the customer had to agree to not hire any independents for their loads. Also, the cost of the tractors is phenomenal compared to a regular car and insurance costs are through the roof. It’s almost impossible to break into trucking as an independent operator these days.

So what will be done? If the free market is still in operation, they’re going to need to pay their drivers a lot more. And trucking is one field where the labor costs are only a tiny fraction of the transportation bill so they should be able to. But for now, offering fifteen bucks an hour to a driver is pretty much an insult. As one guy they interviewed said, “I was making $14 or $15 an hour driving for the big carriers. People flipping hamburgers are demanding $15 an hour.”

There’s something to think about.