FreightWaves recently ran a story about ATA senior vice president Bob Costello speaking on the shortage of truck drivers and how the industry would grapple with a reality that looks increasingly grim every year. He had refuted the claim of the Department of Labor that lists the number of trucking-centric drivers to be 864,000 but rather estimated it to be around 500,000. And since the industry ran with an estimated 50,000 drivers short last year, Costello believes the situation is more ominous than it looks.
Todd Spencer, the president of OOIDA, mirrored the views of Costello and extended his reasons for the shortage while talking on a Fox Business segment yesterday. “Pay for truck drivers has been falling for three decades, while the demand and the responsibility to the job are going exactly the opposite,” he said. “It will always be difficult to find people to do jobs that are hard, that doesn’t really pay much.”
Driver pay has indeed been slumping for three decades. The average trucker wage was $38,618 annually in 1980 and if it is adjusted to the present, would be over $111,000 a year. But as Spencer points out, the average wage today as estimated by the Department of Labor is a paltry $41,000, which is nearly a third of what a trucker needs to draw, considering the inflation over the years.
The buck does not stop here. Drivers in the trucking industry are among the hardest toiling working class, with weeks that range between 70 to 80 hours on the road. Spencer believes that “the trend hasn’t really changed,” and for a job that pays less while demanding incredibly long work weeks, it does not come as a surprise that drivers are hard to come by.
“Much of the time is spent on the road away from families, gone for weeks at a time, and sometimes even months,” said Spencer. “Those are the kind of jobs that people will look to replace and again, that is what has been going on.”
All the adversity is taking a toll on the drivers, as the trucking industry has one of the worst turnovers in the U.S., with a 100% turnover being the norm with large publicly traded companies. “There are plenty of people that enter truck driving every year. The state issues over 400,000 new commercial driver licenses, the vast majority are for truck drivers every year,” said Spencer. “These drivers go to work for companies, generally the large publicly traded companies, and they get burned out, sometimes in as few as six months but almost all of them within a year.”
The industry is finding it hard to woo millennials, as for starters, it is not a job that pays well nor is it the easy life, and second, unemployment is at a record low in the U.S. right now. For example, drivers are moving out to work in factories or construction sites as those jobs pay them more than what they earn in the trucking industry, and would also let them get home every night. “Comparing pay with the consumer price index, drivers would need to be making twice of what they are getting paid right now,” said Spencer.
One of the primary reasons for the debacle lies in the deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980, Spencer said. The companies grew rapidly and buoyed by their shareholders who pushed the management for greater productivity, they consciously started fleecing of the lowest denominator in the ecosystem – the truck drivers.
“Ironically, trucking is an industry that is 90% small business, but it is the big guys that create the economic conditions. And they are also the ones that lobby for more and more regulations that drivers generally hate,” said Spencer.
But when questioned if autonomous trucks are the answer to this problem, Spencer categorically refused such a solution. “It is one thing if you are talking about a Google car that weighs 2,000 pounds, but when you are talking about a large truck that weighs 40 tons, it is a different animal,” he said.
Spencer went on to defend the complexity that the driving job entails, citing the drivers who operate in the worst of weather conditions – like snow, floods, and hurricanes. He concluded by saying that drivers are the ones who step up in the event of a calamity, by bringing in relief supplies and will always be the trucking industry’s mainstay. As things stand right now, there is an urgent need for the industry to address the pay scale issues of its drivers.
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