Maintaining a resilient driver workforce in this country is a collective responsibility that falls on everyone: employers, shippers, receivers, the motoring public and, yes, policymakers too.
If you want to know where our economy is headed, just ask a trucker. The problem is they are harder to find now than ever before.
Captured in daily headlines, a nationwide shortage of available truck drivers is straining the supply chain, causing delays in the delivery of fuel, furniture and other goods and increasing the price on everything. When trucks are moving, the economy is growing. But today thousands of trucks sit idle because motor carriers can’t find qualified drivers to operate them.
There’s no single cause to the shortage. It’s a multi-faceted issue driven by cyclical and structural factors throughout the supply chain, playing out in Canada, Mexico and overseas as well. While the capacity crunch has been felt on-and-off for decades, it was exacerbated by COVID-19 after DMVs and driver training schools shuttered and greater numbers of aging drivers opted for retirement.
In a recent op-ed on CNN, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh emphasized truckers’ essential role in the supply chain. We agree truckers are essential and they are in short supply. It shouldn’t take a global pandemic to remind everyone our standard of living depends on the safe and efficient movement of trucks and the hardworking pros who sit behind the wheel.
Trucking isn’t an easy job and it isn’t for everyone. Lifestyle considerations turn many away from ever considering it. But those who take to the road do so with a powerful purpose: to provide for themselves, their families and everyone else who enjoys the fruits of this bountiful economy. Trucking is one of the last bastions of blue-collar entrepreneurism in our country, which won’t be outsourced and that pays an average salary of $53,000—plus benefits—without requiring a costly, four-year college degree.
Some point to high turnover rates in long-haul trucking jobs as the crux of the shortage, and it’s common to confuse this metric with employee dissatisfaction. Although it might seem counterintuitive, high turnover rates in this sector actually and more accurately reflect driver empowerment and economic opportunity. When the demand for drivers increases – as it is today – pay naturally goes up. When pay rises across the industry, drivers are presented with new and numerous opportunities that draw them away from their current driving job in favor of other, higher-paying gigs.
In today’s market, a driver can quit working for a carrier in the morning knowing she’ll be rehired by another that same afternoon—where she’ll earn more per mile and maybe even receive a signing bonus. That churn within the industry is what’s currently driving high turnover in the over-the-road truckload sector– not exits from the industry. Any time capacity tightens, the driver’s bargaining position is strengthened. Fleets scramble to make their offers more competitive, putting drivers in the driver’s seat—figuratively and literally.
Indeed, trucker pay has been rising dramatically in recent months. Fleets of all sizes—regional and national—are instituting rolling pay increases of ten percent or more, with some offering $10,000 signing bonuses. One trucker told CNN he’s seen his annual pay increase in recent years from $40,000 to $70,000. Long-term trends paint a similar picture: Since 2014, private fleet drivers have seen their pay rise from $73,000 to more than $86,000, or a gain of nearly 18%.
But pay alone can’t solve the scarcity of drivers, especially in an industry that runs on razor thin operating margins of five percent or less. That isn’t to say more can’t be done to improve the quality of life for truckers on the road. Rather, maintaining a resilient driver workforce in this country is a collective responsibility that falls on everyone: employers, shippers, receivers, the motoring public and, yes, policymakers too.
Understanding the challenges of their everyday job is an important first step to treating truckers with the respect they’ve earned and deserve. Thanks to survey data from the American Transportation Research Institute, we have a clear picture of the issues that weigh most heavily on driver satisfaction. Here are three things we can all support to lighten the load on their backs:
1. Increase truck parking capacity.
Have you ever seen a truck parked on the side of the road or the shoulder of an exit ramp and wondered why? Too often it’s their only option. There are more than 11 truck drivers for every one truck parking space in this country, creating an often-daily misery and one of the greatest stressors on the job.
Ninety-eight percent of drivers report having trouble finding safe parking, and 58% admit to resorting to parking in unauthorized spots at three times a week. The average driver spends 56 minutes of available drive time every day looking for parking—limited to 11 hours a day by federal regulations—amounting to a $5,500 loss in annual compensation – or a 12% pay cut.
Rather than fixing this problem, some policymakers are taking active measures to worsen it. The Minneapolis City Council recently enacted a citywide ban on truck parking, denying truckers the ability to safely rest after delivering into the city. Fortunately, other policymakers are using their power for good. Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, included a $1 billion provision to boost truck parking capacity coast-to-coast in his committee’s recent highway reauthorization bill.
2. Reduce detention time.
Long wait times forced upon truckers when picking up or delivering a load are also a constant frustration. It’s common for drivers to wait multiple hours at a shipper’s loading dock, or to arrive at a receiving facility only to find a line of 20 trucks waiting to unload. In recent years, drivers have reported a 27 percent increase in delays of six hours or more. Notably, female drivers are 83.3 percent more likely to experience these long delays.
This idling wreaks havoc on their schedule, eating into the 11 hours of daily drive time that federal regulations limit truckers to. Imagine arriving at a receiving facility—on-time and as scheduled—only to wait four hours to unload, and with nowhere to use the bathroom, leaving you with only 20 minutes of drive time left on the clock to find a parking space for the night that is nowhere to be found.
It is incumbent upon the shipping public to manage operations so that trucks can arrive and depart swiftly and safely. Common courtesies like providing truckers access to restroom facilities go a long way, too.
3. Keep government hands out of their pockets.
When faced with the hard work of balancing a budget or paying for infrastructure, politicians have a habit of singling out trucks for an easy bailout. Never mind that truckers already pay nearly half the entire federal highway user-fee tab despite accounting for only four percent of vehicles on the road.
Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) has pushed a truck-only Vehicles Miles Tax that would mandate electronic tracking devices inside trucks so the Internal Revenue Service can monitor their movements and tax them for every mile driven. Senator Cornyn has floated a $0.25 per-mile tax rate, urging his fellow senators on the Senate Finance Committee to consider it, and reportedly discussed the proposal with Secretary Buttigieg. For a typical independent trucker who runs 100,000 miles annually, this scheme would cost them $25,000 in lost earnings every year.
The Cornyn Tax would trigger a massive exodus of drivers from the industry that absolutely dwarfs today’s shortage and would pour gasoline on the inflationary fire to a degree which our country has never seen before. If our common goal is to increase the number of truck drivers in America, it’s difficult to fathom a more destructive policy than having the IRS track them with devices to tax them by the mile.
The pandemic reminded Americans how much we rely on truckers in our everyday lives. From basic essentials like food, water, gasoline and clothing, to critical life-saving items like vaccines, prescription drugs and medical supplies — if you got it, a trucker brought it. Simple measures like these three suggestions above would go a long way to alleviating the strains of a difficult but essential job and help ensure America’s truckers can continue delivering for us and keep the U.S. economy moving forward.