While truckers are collecting record pay increases this year, those higher wages are having little effect on the industry’s shortage of drivers.
Truckers work long hours in isolation for pay that rises and falls based on how many miles they drive and the type of load they haul. With low unemployment, potential new drivers gravitate to other industries that offer better pay and stable working conditions.
The shortage of drivers and trucks was so great earlier this year that some carriers temporarily turned away orders.
Hundreds of trucking firms surveyed quarterly by the National Transportation Institute found that 85 percent do not link higher pay to attracting driver candidates. Nearly 99 percent said they need to pay more than the competition just to keep the drivers they have.
Attrition among drivers at large long-haul fleets rose to 98 percent in the second quarter this year, up 4 percentage points from the April-June 2017 period and the highest since 2015, according to the American Trucking Association’s Trucking Activity Report.
Race to the Bottom
Since the deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980, driver pay has trended lower because of increased competition. Drivers today earn about twice as much as the typical service-sector employee. Before deregulation, it was four times as much, said Kenny Vieth, president of ACT Research.
Deregulation “set off a race to the bottom,” said Todd Spencer, president of the 160,000-member Owner-Operators Independent Trucking Association.
“It’s a perpetual hunt for the least expensive labor and flies in the face of seniority or tenure,” Spencer told Trucks.com.
Some private fleet drivers earn upward of $80,000 a year, and they stay with their companies. For-hire drivers at large motor carriers in 2017 earned around $53,000, according to the ATA’s Driver Compensation Study published in March.
Truckers work 55 to 65 hours a week, compared with 42.8 hours for the average full-time worker, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The labor bureau pegs trucking at roughly $21 an hour, but the actual rate is lower because the workweek is longer.
Many drivers are on the road for days or weeks at a time. Bad weather that prevents driving and time lost to mechanical trouble cost drivers.
Freight-hauling demand pushed wages higher rapidly this year, said Gordon Klemp, president of the NTI. Many firms raised driver pay at least twice.
The typical driver will earn a record 11 percent to 11.5 percent more this year than in 2017, Klemp said. Wages should go up 7 percent to 10 percent in 2019,1500 depending on the strength of the economy, he said.
Average wage growth for all workers in the U.S. rose 1 percent from November 2017 and November 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Crete Carrier Corp. advertises that its drivers are earning 17 percent more this year than a year ago. The top 25 percent of drivers earn more than $80,000 a year.
Following the Money
Five-figure signing bonuses lead some drivers to jump from carrier to carrier. This also drives the high attrition figures.
“I’m like a mercenary,” said Luke Foster, who drives for United Road, a car-hauler based in Romulus, Mich. He has driven for more than a dozen companies in 36 years. “They gave me a $12,000 sign-on bonus. I do it for the money.”
But drivers who chase cash bonuses will miss out on accrued benefits like vacation pay and matches to pretax savings, Klemp said.
Federal regulations also affect driver pay.
Hours-of-service rules digitally monitored by electronic logging devices cut into how much drivers earn because a truck’s ELD ticks down time when drivers are waiting for a dock or for cargo unloading. That reduces miles driven. Drivers can no longer edit driving logs like they could when they were on paper.
The driving portion of the workday now averages 6.5 hours at Knight-Swift Transportation, a mega-carrier with 19,000 trucks.
“Fifteen years ago, I was making $1,500 a week getting paid 30 cents a mile,” said Carla Dickey, who drives for Bulkley Trucking in Brashear, Texas. “Now I’m making $1,200 a week and getting 50 cents a mile.”
Salaries and Incentives
Some carriers are experimenting with paying drivers a weekly salary plus bonuses for extra miles driven.
Roadmaster Group in Glendale, Ariz., saw its driver attrition fall from 130 percent to as low as 28 percent after starting a hybrid salary plan in 2012, John Wilbur, the trucking company’s chief executive, told Trucks.com.
“How are you supposed to run your life if you have no clue how much you are going to make?” he asked.
“In an environment where you’ve got full employment and a shortage of qualified drivers, you’ve got to do some different things,” said Don Daseke, founder and chief executive.
Other carriers are testing guaranteed pay that sets a floor on how much drivers will make in a week based on their availability. Those amounts range from $700 to $1,200, depending on the type of freight, the region of the country and other factors, Klemp said.
In September, U.S. Xpress began offering free tuition to a driver and one dependent child or two dependent children to earn bachelor’s or master’s degrees from online Ashford University.
“It’s not that much money,” said Jason Seidl, a trucking industry analyst with Cowen Inc., of the tuition offer. “Everyone out there is trying to recruit and retain. The demographics are against the industry.”