How Trucking Affects Everyone (And A Call To Action)

I must share a very pressing issue with you all today that needs the attention of as many people as possible. Even if you don’t know about it or even care about it, it still affects you if you live in the United States.

Right now there is a tremendous shortage of truck drivers. Even if you have heard about this, many of you may not realize the impact this is having on every aspect of our day-to-day lives.

The Problem

Big rigs move 71% of the tonnage around the country. Imagine every household convenience or necessity, from toilet paper to bottled water to cell phones to crowbars. If you have it in your house, it’s likely that a truck driver pulled it alongside thousands of other ones across America’s decently-maintained highway system, slugging coffee and dodging the occasional pothole to break the long hours of monotony that come with driving through flyover country.

At the same time, we are on the precipice of a market meltdown. Keeping up with current demand will require 900,000 new truckers in the next decade. Though this phenomenally large number is similar in the nursing industry, those jobs will stay unfilled due to many industry-wide issues that nursing never has to confront.

1: Trucking is already inherently hard

Trucking has a vast range of requirements for performing its routine work duties, and few jobs can compare:

  1. Extreme patience with other drivers (including traffic), delayed or unionized shippers’ and receivers’ yards, dispatch personnel failings and delays, adverse weather conditions, road closures, and inaccurate directions
  2. Consistent alertness while performing daily pre-trip and post-trip inspections along with staying alert on-the-road of signage, other vehicles, obstructions, weather changes, and miscellaneous other hazards
  3. Ability to work alone without supervision, sleep alone, prepare meals and make nutritional plans, fulfill social needs while traveling from state to state, and maintain a professional composure with everyone irrespective of the challenges
  4. Mechanical aptitude to diagnose and temporarily fix truck problems
  5. Problem-solving skills sufficient for making a legitimately functional trip plan, backing into tight spots, and driving out of truck-restricted pathways and dead ends
  6. Capacity to understand and perform compliance regarding DOT regulations for hours of work, inspections, trailer quality, and weight limits (both gross and on each axle)

Truckers typically start their driving careers as trainees with mentors, followed by OTR (over the road), also known as long-haul. OTR goes beyond a job; it’s a lifestyle of working completely unpredictable hours mixed with living out of the sleeper portion of a truck cab. The sleeper portion is about the size of a walk-in closet, and I can vouch from personal experience that it’s halfway between living in a minivan (limited space, always moving around, no bathroom inside) and living in an RV (managing electricity, convenient tiny compartments everywhere, limited use of appliances). Many people don’t continue their driving career after OTR, meaning they never see the opportunities the industry has to offer.

When you start exploring anything beyond dry vans (the term for those big boxes that make up most of the trailers), intermodal (shipping containers), and reefers (refrigerated trailers), driving includes a whole new layer of requirements and duties.

With all of those requirements, trucking would be an honorable profession that only the most high-class individuals would aspire to, but that’s another problem.

2: Trucking isn’t known as an honorable profession

Once, decades ago, truck driving was a hallowed profession. In those days, big rig drivers were “road cowboys” that pioneered the carriage of what American wanted and needed. Though the industry has always been in need of drivers, long-haul driving was a necessary sacrifice that placed drivers alongside police officers and farmers, and this brought out the boldest and most adventurous to perform the work.

Today, choosing a truck driver career path, especially long-haul driving, is rarely held in high regard anymore. Many companies fail to treat drivers as individuals, and they respond by being as mediocre as permissible. I currently work for one of the best companies in the industry (Melton Truck Lines), but when I worked for Swift, the culture permitted many truckers that were more steering wheel holders than professional drivers.

Popular culture certainly hasn’t helped. Between silly stories like Smokey and the Bandit that make truckers look like outlaws and TV crime investigation episodes that make the mysterious murderer out as a wandering truck driver, the stigma that truckers are as trustworthy as homeless people has only grown in the recent past. In large cities, a truck’s size inconveniences most four-wheel drivers, most of the four-wheelers silently hate them from being woefully oblivious to how that truck enables their lifestyle to persist.

A professional usually has plenty of requirements to abide by, but most professionals are paid well for what they do. People wouldn’t see electricians, doctors, and accountants as professionals if their pay was close to the minimum wage. Truckers, however, are paid less than a weekly paycheck would imply.

3: Trucking doesn’t pay as much as it looks

I’d be lying if I said truck driving didn’t pay decently, but I’d also be lying if I said it was a well-paying job. Beyond the requirements I mentioned in Point 1, there are multiple parts of trucking that make discerning an “hourly” rate very difficult.

There are 3 “groups” of trucker: OTR, regional, and local. Each of them pays a little differently.

OTR pay is usually for every mile driven. Sometimes there is additional pay for detention (getting stuck for at least a couple hours at a shipper or receiver) or layover (24-hour periods of being ready for work but not getting a load), but the per-mile rate is the most frequent. Further, getting detention pay is sometimes like pulling teeth and creates more work from its difficulty.

Local gets the driver home nearly every day. Pay is often a simple hourly arrangement with overtime and is relatively easy to calculate.

Regional is a hybrid of local and OTR, where the driver will travel up to 500-700 miles out from their home and will often come back home every weekend. Pay is usually a bit less per mile than OTR but gives a flat rate for each stop at a shipper or receiver.

Some other factors make calculating per-hour pay more even more complicated:

  • Per-mile pay changes with the circumstances. 40¢/mile is $24.00/hour at 60 MPH, but it becomes $12.00/hour in a 30 MPH construction zone, $4.00/hour in a 10 MPH traffic jam, and $0.00/hour when the shipper is taking their time loading because the forklift operator is working at precisely the pace that union regulations require.
  • Sometimes the pay per mile will be adjusted for being west or east of the Mississippi. The Eastern seaboard is inundated with tiny highways and small side roads, while the West has a select few major highways, meaning West may get paid a little bit less per mile while East Coast driving is paid less overall depending on the region.
  • To be paid per mile or per stop doesn’t adjust for overtime work. DOT regulations specify a 70-hour limit of work in an 8-day period, which averages out to about 9.5 hours a day or 10 if they take one day off, though there are legal ways to work a little more than that.
  • Most truckers go off-duty (and are still working) at shippers or receivers and when refueling to squeeze more driving time into their week. When done correctly, a 34-hour reset can technically squeeze another 12 or so hours out of an 8-day period, which bumps up the 70-hour limit considerably.
  • Every day a truck driver must perform a pre-trip and post-trip inspection, totaling 20 minutes of unpaid work. Downtime when waiting for truck repairs or a new load is often only paid if it persists several days. Many companies will only reimburse the bare minimum truck supplies to keep the wheels turning.
  • Truckers are often limited to buying their supplies, tools, meals, and anything else they need at truck stops and gas stations, and those prices can cut deeply into take-home pay. The varieties present in truck stop food can cost a trucker’s health.

Many professional drivers are underpaid, but as you can see it can be complicated to discern an appropriate pay for OTR and regional. If the Department of Labor were involved and mandated standard labor laws that other professions hold, truckers would make twice what they’re making right now.

Many companies take advantage of truckers’ “grass is greener” syndrome with various tricks that take advantage of the inconsistent pay arrangements.

4: Trucking companies foster a very dysfunctional and distrustful culture

There is a saying among truckers: “you are only as good as your last load.” The industry rarely gives any honor to truck drivers for all their hard work, but they will get an earful at the slightest sign that they’ve made a mistake.

Accounting broadly classifies different departments as either profit centers or cost centers. Human resources departments, for example, are cost centers because they don’t directly make a company money. Excepting the drivers and maybe the customer service department, everything else in a trucking logistics company is fundamentally a cost center.

Truck drivers are on the bottom of a very profit-focused chain. Driver managers are meant to be the primary means of connection inside the office to allow drivers to do their jobs, but truck drivers are still required to manage a messaging system inside the truck and continuously communicate with different departments. Dispatch workers that very often have no idea what truck driving is like and treat the drivers like numbers.

A driver can work steadily at a company for years, but there is often little to no reward for it. In fact, the additional pay they’ve earned can give the dispatchers incentive to send the loads with the most miles to the newest (and therefore lowest-paid per mile) drivers.

Companies often have multiple types of drivers (e.g., owner-operators vs. employees, paid per mile vs. paid a percentage of the load). They will often use this to their advantage when assigning loads (e.g., send owner-operators loads through snowy areas, send cheaper loads to the drivers who make a percentage of the load’s value).

Most of the larger companies have created such a strangely toxic and high-demand culture that they invest tremendous resources into very robust HR systems and huge recruiting departments of high-pressure sales personnel to coerce drivers (especially new ones with less than a year of experience) to join their company. They make impossible promises and contact drivers incessantly to compete against every other company.

Many larger companies have a bit of a social engineering scheme blended into their dysfunctional culture. First, they hire new CDL graduates without telling them the rights they have as an employee. The new driver is overwhelmed by an incessantly demanding dispatch and low pay, but they see “work for yourself” lease-operator advertising at all of the company terminals. The driver arranges for more cents per mile by signing a monthly lease on a truck the company sells to them. Owner-operators’ take-home pay can often be a fraction of employees’ from their fuel and repair expenses. The lease chains the driver to the company exclusively and is usually paid off about the time that the truck is too well-worn to maintain profitably. There is little to no regulation to prevent fraud or false advertising throughout the entire process.

Truck drivers don’t usually stay at companies very long. Inside the industry, it’s common for a new CDL graduate to start work at a company, go through a week of orientation, stay there two weeks, quit in frustration, then respond to a call from a recruiter of the same company and be re-hired within a week of leaving. As long as the driver drops the truck off in a safe place like a company terminal, nobody bats an eye. The two-week notice doesn’t exist in this industry.

5: Full automation is a long way off

I’ve posted this more in-depth on my personal blog, but to put simply Level 5 automation is a long way from becoming a reality, which means that this job has at least a decade until the truck driver can become as obsolete as the long-distance messenger or phone operator.

Here are the five levels in a nutshell:

  • Level 0 – The vehicle doesn’t drive itself, though it might have something like ABS
  • Level 1 – The vehicle steers or controls speed, but not both (e.g., cruise control)
  • Level 2 – The vehicle can navigate one lane of a highway
  • Level 3 – The vehicle can drive itself but needs constant supervision
  • Level 4 – The vehicle is fully autonomous in excellent conditions
  • Level 5 – The vehicle drives itself anywhere, anytime

We are currently at Level 3, but there are immense legal hurdles tied to bringing us to Level 4, and most companies won’t see a profit in installing Level 3 systems into their fleets as long as drivers can stay awake. The promise of results in this field brings many investors, but delivering actual results is a far step away from commitments and hopes. In other words, don’t believe most of the hype.

The Consequences

This series of industry failings haven’t been great for the rest of the country, and common sense will indicate how it can only get worse.

Shipping costs have been steadily increasing, shipments routinely receive delays, supply chains are facing massive bottlenecks, and department stores often have gaps on their shelves for days at a time. Many companies will pass on their added costs to consumers. Late freight has become an industry standard. If these problems persist every job connected to drivers, such as forklift operators and plant managers, will suffer adversely.

Without coal or oil, most of the country’s power grid will shut down. Without building materials, houses won’t be built to keep up with demand. Without food, people starve. The increased scarcity of all of these items will force their market value upwards, even with the irony of an abundance of those goods elsewhere in the country awaiting transfer.

This problem will not get better unless we all take action. There are some things you, reading this, can do to change it.

The Solution

If you’re in the government

Please look into deregulating the industry. The last deregulation was the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 and lowered the cost of freight overall while opening the job to a larger workforce. Many of the regulations tied to safety (seat belt, required stickers, and indicators, etc.) should probably stay, but it’s still worth re-evaluating the quality of the laws and whether they don’t create an unnecessary burden upon the drivers. 80,000 pounds was a good and safe number in 1980, but at this point, most of the modern tractor-trailers could easily carry 120,000.

At one time, truck drivers could operate in a mostly independent fashion, where their only need for others was for brokers to arrange for their loads. It is too legally precarious in today’s environment for an owner-operator to independently perform their job. Most owner-operators have most of their needs fulfilled by a single large carrier, which effectively makes them much more liable than an employee for a little bit more pay.

There is currently talk of adjusting the 14-hour daily limit, and that would be a tremendous move in the right direction. In the past, most drivers never really honored the law because they’d write works of near-complete fiction with paper logs, but this new ELD requirement does away with all of that. It stresses the need for reform more than ever.

It may be worth considering involving the Department of Labor in this discussion. Long-haul trucking is especially unpredictable regarding wages, and this rings especially true with some very deceitful lease-operator programs that many companies try with their drivers.

Some states, such as California and much of New England, are almost hostile work environments for truckers. California, for example, mandates a 55 MPH speed limit, which creates both an immense hazard for motorists traveling 70 MPH as well as delaying freight throughout California even further. New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire (alongside California as well) and others have such a small scope of amenities to serve truckers that it forces them to either plan their day to never sleep in the state or to park in ever-increasingly odd and dangerous places to fulfill their legal 10-hour reset.

Give truckers a break. Most of them are subjected to poor training from their companies and spend their first year trying to catch up to the proper way to drive. I can vouch for my experience at Swift (and the corrective action taken by Melton) that drivers become terrifying to other drivers from training that directed them that way. The mentorship system is mostly unregulated and varies drastically from company to company, but holds most of the defining moments that determine how a driver approaches their craft.

Also, start looking at “third options” in related industries. Deregulating the rail and shipping industry would allow long-haul driving to be less vital in transferring goods. The need for local and regional drivers will persist (and may increase a little), but it will offset the lifestyle demanded of those 900,000 drivers we need to see moving into the industry. With enough deregulation, we may even find that unsettling 900,000 worker number diminish!

If you’re in a trucking company

Please stop trying to recruit new truckers. Advertising is one thing, but high-pressure sales directed at impressionable and unhappy truckers are destroying the entire industry. Instead of promising we’ll be home every single week, more pay than other companies, the best equipment, the best terminals, and anything else you’d like us to hear, please cut your recruiting department in half and put the money into more cents per mile and more training for your dispatch department. There is proof that extra pay is the best way to retain truckers.

Further, please consider finding solutions to the current nausea of the systems currently in place on the back end. Invest in more powerful management software that can factor more of the variables that matter to the truckers (such as honoring home time or likely weather conditions) and push the office personnel to work as hard as the truckers they’re managing. Truckers have joked for a long time that they’re hauling dispatcher brains when the truck is empty, and there’s a reason for it.

Without making significant internal changes, truckers will never take your company seriously. They’ve been fed all the stories, corporate jargon, and acronyms, and have learned how to tune them out. Give the blue-collar world their due: give them more of what they’re working for and talk straight with them.

It would also be wise to consider hiring more CDL graduates for local and regional positions that have never done OTR. Long-haul driving is such a shock to someone unprepared for its trauma that it will drive most drivers that could have a lucrative career in trucking towards literally any other job.

If you’re a trucker

You’re a professional, and you have a difficult job. Most people will never understand what kind of lifestyle you lead. Don’t let yourself get taken advantage of and stay in the industry. Even if your job is thankless, it’s a great time to be a trucker with all of the opportunities that have to come through.

As much as possible, try to be more of a professional. I’ve talked about it on my website, and it would serve the whole industry well if truckers were known as the respectable nomadic pioneers of the American economy, the working-class manifestation of the jet-lagged business traveler. We can bring that back, but it will take all of us.

You can do it, but it will take some effort. All that effort you put in will serve you later on, though. You’re more likely to gain opportunities as a driver manager, trainer, or some other leadership position, and your experience is the sort of thing that prevents the lack of hands-on office experience we’re currently witnessing.

If you’re in the media

Please try getting this word out. The power of thought is vital to change minds, and we need to rebuild this industry into something that brings better quality people into it. To fill blue-collar work, we need a cultural shift, and the media is profoundly influential in creating that shift. Most people are utterly unaware that trucking can pay so well or can be so rewarding. Also, since the trucking industry is technically a focal point of every industry that deals with physical goods, it’s an excellent way for anyone to transition careers into whatever industry they’d like!

If you’re anyone else

The statistical likelihood that you’re both reading this and a player in the industry is slim. You are still able to make a difference.

If you’re a friend or family of a trucker, start looking at that trucker as performing a vital task to keep civilization running. Many truck drivers spend so many lonely hours on the road that they forget why they’re even doing it.

If you are unemployed, try out trucking. One of the benefits of the job is that it is remarkably rewarding. Even if you can’t stand it, most trucking schools last a few months, and you’ll get back your investment in a few months’ time driving.

If you know any professional drivers, give them some love. Their job is almost guaranteed to be harder than yours, and most of their life is an alienating existence of limited human connection and long hours working alone. I’ve heard it said that you ought to say “thanks” to a soldier for your freedom and to a trucker for your stuff. Many veterans have made their way into trucking, so they should be given double honor.

Also, please pass this on to anyone else who may be interested in it. This summary took quite a bit of time to assemble, and I hope it’s served to give an “executive summary” of the current crisis we face. My most extravagant wish is that Secretary of the Department of Transportation Elaine L. Chao could read this, or maybe even President Trump, but anyone with the influence to make a lasting change would help us all.

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