On the Road

The driver shortage is a myth

January 18, 2012

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There are thousands of men and women out there today with a CDL in their pocket no longer working as truck drivers. Why is the industry moaning about a shortage of drivers?
The question that needs to be asked is not how much can we afford to pay drivers, but how much can we afford not to pay drivers. (Photo by Jim Park)
The question that needs to be asked is not how much can we afford to pay drivers, but how much can we afford not to pay drivers. (Photo by Jim Park)


Like any perceived shortage, the tightness in the current labor market exists only in the minds of those unwilling to pay the price of resolving it. In our case, jobs are going begging because the cost of filling the empty seats seems too high. Or, looking at it from the opposite perspective, those the industry would hope to attract are unwilling to work -- again -- for companies that used and abused and took advantage of them for years.

If a fleet can't fill its empty seats, it's because the fleet has more trucks than it needs, or drivers simply do not want to work for that company.

It's like choosing a restaurant. As a diner, you have choices: fast food, nouveau cuisine, meat and potatoes, Indian, Thai, Italian ... Maybe you don't like Thai food. Maybe you got sick the last time you ate at the fast food place. You're a meat and potatoes guy, but you're bored with that. Well, there's that Italian place, but the parking lot is always empty; maybe the food's no good.

If that restaurant sits empty night after night, do you think the owner goes around whining about a shortage of customers? If he did, who'd listen to him? More to the point, would his pleas for more business entice you to try the place?

If that restauranteur wanted to improve his fortunes, he'd offer a more appealing menu, clean up the place, hire some friendly wait staff, and sell the customers on the experience one meal at a time. If he gets it right, his parking lot would soon be full. Then, maybe you'd try the place too.

Drivers have choices as well, and one of them is staying away.

This little rant comes about because of the recent 4th quarter 2011 Business Expectations Survey released by Transport Capital Partners in January. It suggested, among other things, that more and more carriers are starting to think that driver pay needs to rise to $60,000 or more.

Geez. I earned 20% more than that when I left at my last driving job in 1996. But I know drivers who are today making less than $40,000 for 50 weeks of 100 hours or more "on the job." And we wonder why people don't want to be truck drivers? If you're not quick with your math, that works out to eight bucks an hour.

Outdated Pay Structure

As a line in the sand, $60,000 is a good place to start, and to be truthful, plenty of drivers are making that and more today.

But while annual earnings are important, how drivers are paid is as much the reason existing CDL holders and potential new recruits are staying away as what they are paid.

Drivers are paid exactly the same way migrant farm workers are paid: piecework. Rather than fractions of a penny per head of lettuce plucked from the ground, drivers earn a few cents for each mile they travel. When they aren't moving, they aren't earning. It doesn't seem to matter that they remain responsible for the trucks they drive, or that they are away from home and prepared to do their employer's bidding at any time. There's nothing in most pay schemes to compensate for the inevitable irregularities that push the clock up to and past 100 hours a week, while the meter records only miles.

They are required to spend about a quarter of an hour every day inspecting their bosses' truck, uncompensated. They spend countless hours driving around drop-yards looking for trailers and doing paperwork, uncompensated. Hour upon hour is spent waiting around for loads, uncompensated. They are subject to the vagaries of loading dock politics, which can result in day-long delays, often uncompensated. And then they have to fight with payroll over all the miles and hours that were clawed back because customers didn't pay, or because of archaic pay policies.

There's nothing more dehumanizing that having to fight for your pay.

Carriers got away with that back in the days when drivers truly were a dime a dozen. That's no longer the case.

The other regrettable aspect to this is that trucking's current pay structure has bred a culture of noncompliance. There's more incentive to cheat on logs, cut corners on inspections, and push too hard and drive too fast than to take one's time and do the work properly. It's all about turning motion into money.

My last driving job -- at $72,000 for 49 weeks of 60 hours -- paid us for everything we did. We were paid off our tachograph cards. All miles and hours were recorded and all miles and hours were paid. And we weren't paid eight bucks an hour for loading and unloading and 15 bucks and hour for driving. The pay was about the same no matter what we did, so there was no incentive to rush through one to get to the other. If we were delayed at a customer, no big deal. I wasn't going to take home any less because of it.

No driver should have to worry about how much he or she will bring home to their families simply because a customer ordered a load a day early and decided to keep the driver sitting until there was room for the freight.

Anyone on the outside of trucking looking in soon discovers how drivers are paid. Sure, $40,000 might seem appealing if you're making only $18,000 a year behind the counter of a 7-11 store, but sooner or later, the cost of earning that extra $22,000 takes its toll and they pack up and leave. Those people aren't used to stopping the clock when there are no customers in the store.

Folks who work in factories don't punch out and wait in the lunchroom while their machines are repaired. They show up for work prepared to do eight or 10 hours of work, and they expect to go home with eight or 10 hours' pay for their trouble.

Why should trucking get away with anything different?

The UK experience

A few years ago in the United Kingdom, lawmakers all but banned mileage pay, forcing carriers to pay hourly wages or put drivers on salary. A couple of interesting things happened.

Carriers, forced to rationalize their fleet sizes because they could not afford to have drivers earning full wages while the trucks sat around earning nothing, soon found they needed fewer trucks. Those fewer trucks earned more money because of the pressure it put on capacity. Shippers soon realized that inefficiency would cost them dearly, and they suddenly started getting trucks loaded and unloaded a lot more promptly.

I'd like to think electronic logs will bring drivers closer to how I was paid back in the mid-'90s. Those things record everything a driver does, and drivers should -- must -- be paid for everything they do, even if it's waiting for a tire repair truck or a recalcitrant shipper.

Trucking can no longer afford to download all of its problems and inefficiencies to the driver. There aren't enough of them anymore willing to put up with that way of doing business. Many have already passed judgment on trucking and they have done so with their feet.

But at the end of the day, pay is only part of the problem. Check out the next installment of my blog in about a week, where I'll wax philosophic about the culture of culpability and why it retards meaningful improvements in safety and driver recruiting.

If you don't see the comments section below, please click here to comment.

Comments

  1. 1. Josh [ January 20, 2012 @ 07:48PM ]

    I agree with 99% of this Jim. Companies that pay up and create the best working environment for drivers is going to be the long term winner in the is industry. However, your bit about 100 hours per week threw me for a loop. 100 hours per week? Come on man. I work in trucking but not as a driver. I earn about 70k per year as well. I work about 60 hours per week, spending some time home and some on the road. One thing remains the same. I spend each night worrying instead of sleeping. So which is it, $23.33 per hour for my 3000 hours or do I consider it that I'm on the job because I'm thinking about it so I'm making $14.00 per hour? Your article is really good but you really should have left that part out. Everybody has work expenses, and time spent on the job not getting paid if you have a career outside of McDonalds.

  2. 2. Josh [ January 20, 2012 @ 09:50PM ]

    P.S. I should proof read before posting.

  3. 3. Kurt [ January 20, 2012 @ 09:52PM ]

    When driver pay rates suddenly jump 30 or more %, and major carriers increase the speed limiters on their trucks to do the posted speed limits to increase capacity, then you will know there truly is a shortage. Until then, it is just more of the same hype we have been hearing for the past 20 years.

  4. 4. Bruce Knapp [ January 22, 2012 @ 02:10AM ]

    Here is what I like about the trucking industry. I own and operate a one truck 48 state trucking company. I had to go thru good and bad companies as a driver. I saw first hand how horrible some companies treat their drivers and how good other companies treat theirs. I chose to start my own so I can determine what I want to make. I do very well. It is not always easy. I appreciate the driving experiences I have had and the job that those companies gave me. Those companies that treat drivers poorly will have to pay the price for that sooner or later. Non financial side affects are peace of mind

  5. 5. Quincy [ January 22, 2012 @ 01:17PM ]

    The one thing I never see on the comments is one big facter everyone seems to miss. Just because someone can use a hammer to drive a nail doesent mean you want them to build your house. There is a huge difference between a good safe driver and a warm body in a seat. There is no shortage of warm bodies to fill a seat, but do you really want a warm body driving a 40 ton truck beside your loved ones?

  6. 6. Mike [ January 22, 2012 @ 06:02PM ]

    I couldn't agree more with you Jim. Your article is spot on. However, you aren't addressing the whole problem. I've been in this business for over forty years. I started out as a union company driver and made more money in 1969 as a summer driver than my parents did as working class people with both Mom and Dad working outside the house in three months. I remember tariffs and how trucking companies did business before deregulation. I'm currently ex president and now operations consultant to a small three truck OTR Authority. (no we are not extinct yet) I know the solution to the industry's driver shortage is as you state. Just pay them more. The problem is that we don't make any money now so how can we pay them more. We assume all the risk and expense and work for 3PLs, Brokers, Large Carriers and just about anyone else who won't or can't pass a fair revenue to the actual people doing th e work in this industry. I'll leave it to all your s

  7. 7. Mike Jones [ January 29, 2012 @ 04:30AM ]

    I agree with this post. Compensation for all work done and all time spent.
    The "culture" he referred to is quickly becoming Illegal Alien Truck Drivers from Calif to Louisianna.
    These illegal aliens are driving semi trucks right past Border Patrol Agents everyday. They breeze in and out of our weigh stations with Policemen waving them on down the road!!!!!
    Could it be more Rediculous??? Nobody knows WHO these drivers REALLY are!!! Fake licenses, stolen
    Social Security Numbers....what OTHER illegal activities are we HELPING them get away with???
    This is the FASTEST GROWING segment of the Trucking Culture. Dont forget this part please in your next BLOG??? I see NOBODY addressing this issue. Fake truck drivers from foreign countries working here illegally driving for "logistics" companies. I hardly think they appear in COURT to answer CHARGES after there has been a Bloody Accident where American Citizens were slaughtered...no they are busy running for the b

  8. 8. Mike Jones [ January 29, 2012 @ 05:22PM ]

    You did say you will be posting a blog about Trucking Culture. Please email me a link. It is related to the Shortage of new young people wanting to come into this industry in that....the Newbie pays his 5k and gets his CDL...then goes into a truckstop anywhere on I-10 and sees a majority or the drivers are apparently from Mexico...speaking Spanish and driving old beaters!! Delightful.....my consituuents appear to be illegal aliens! It is not a big selling point. Many appear to be from Prison with gang looking
    tatoos on their Scalp, Neck, fingers and the rest....upstanding "citizens" no doubt. The newbie notices he is outnumbered really by what appear to be foreigners. He becomes mildly disenchanted at this revelation with his choice in occupations. Kind of lumped in with the lowest of the lowindustry has become a TURN OFF to young people. You would NEVER bring your WIFE into one of these dumps....if she was also a new driver or just riding along. The demographic has CHANGED

  9. 9. Mike Jones [ January 29, 2012 @ 05:27PM ]

    I had to shorten my comment...but the new kid telling old Dad he aspires to be a truck driver is hilarious.
    The culture is suitable for an animal. Old quality drivers are leaving in droves and new drivers do not last long when they see it is pretty depressing. I live in truckstops and I would NOT wish it upon my worst enemy......filthy disgusting...dumps....really not uplifting for a new guy or an old guy.
    The Culture of the truck driver and his "lifestyle".....hilarious reading....pathetic is what it is.

  10. 10. Henry [ January 31, 2012 @ 03:04AM ]

    Jim,
    You nailed this one. There really is not nor has there ever been a driver shortage. Now lets move to the parking shortage which has the same undertones as the driver shortage.

  11. 11. Linda [ January 31, 2012 @ 04:42PM ]

    You put into words what I have thought for several years. Great Job.

  12. 12. Rich Kruml Sr. [ February 02, 2012 @ 07:02PM ]

    There is no shortage of people with a CDL, what there is, is a shortage of people that wish to be treated like dogs, people that wish to perform work for a company and not be paid for it, people that wish to spend hours waiting at docks and not being paid for it, people that wish to take care of someone elses truck, (washing it, getting repairs done etc.) and not getting paid for it.
    And above all people wanting to be subject to being treated like children by regulations telling them when to nap, when to rest, when to eat and being monitored electronically causing them to be gone for weeks at a time and not making the money they should be for around the clock responsibility.
    There is absolutely no reason for a person to work for another person except for money for each and every minute spent doing so...period. Those are the real problems with the so called driver shortage.

  13. 13. Brad Bolinger [ February 08, 2012 @ 12:57AM ]

    I have worked in all parts of trucking. from the office to the loading docks and everything ends with the driver. You can have the best management in the world without that truck and driver your going know where. I began trucking in 1973 we had a class A . I worked for one company that really know how to take care of there drivers. We where paid from the time we left home till we got back. I drove a new truck every two years and made $50.000 per yr. They had 30 tractors and 50 trailers and the owners picked and choose there drivers, We had 2% turn over they took care of you and you took care of them. With no out of services and time delivers .I feel the shortage of drivers today is all the work and long hours they put in for what they are paid. If we made as much money as every one think we do there would not be a person in a office anywhere they would all own trucks. Pay the driver .so they make a living for there familys.

  14. 14. 60NEWGUY [ February 15, 2012 @ 09:18PM ]

    Before October 2011 I had never even sat in a commercial truck. Needing a job, I knew their were plenty for drivers in the trucking industry. It is still amazing that the private school I attended and the DMV gave
    me a diploma and license with all endorsements. I am barely skilled enough to get on the road, and am very unskilled in backing in tight places. The responsibilities for .29 per mile are outrageous! Your article and all of the responses are spot on! If I don't quit after this past 4 weeks being employed, I will if the driver manager (dispatcher) tries to make me deliver loads at 2:00 or 3:00 in the A.M.. This after I could not sleep the night before because am not allowed to idle for heat or cooling!! It's a very, very unhealthy "lifestyle"!

  15. 15. starhauler [ April 13, 2012 @ 01:22AM ]

    A lot of what has been said here I could agree with. Not mentioned here is the late load that makes run 11 hrs hard just make it to the DC at say 2AM with a apt at 8AM check in and they want you to check into recieving at 6AM , sit listing to the CB for a door for perhaps 3 hours, get a door get bounced finally at say 9AM with off and on offloading till noon. Dispatch calls hey you had 10 hrs we need ya to run! Say what? Bull! Rhen to top it off the DC will not let you stay after you are empty!
    To crazy, I ran for a major company for 5 weeks and left, first run rode shotgun to where my assigned rig was and we lost two wheels off the trailer in rt! In that five weeks I had trailers with super singles showing steel belt on 6 different locations. Na I don't need this!

  16. 16. Linebacker [ May 02, 2012 @ 02:13AM ]

    I am a new driver, but experienced in life. Now I see why USXpress ranted about no unions in orientation.

  17. 17. Jim Park [ January 21, 2012 @ 05:03AM ]

    Thanks for the comments Josh.

    I really think you underestimate the amount of real work a driver does in the course of a day that goes uncompensated. And to be fair, there are lots of driving jobs that limit drivers to 60 or 70 hours a week. They tend to be private carriers and union environments (though there are exceptions). For an over-the-road driver, as I described, loading, unloading, waiting for a dispatch, breakdowns, CVSA roadside inspections, repairs, paperwork, ... the list of unpaid duties is a long one. The point is, they are typically uncompensated.

    For too long, drivers have been told all the work over and above driving is "built into the rate." If that's the case, the trucking is an 8-dollar-an-hour job when all is said and done. If the drivers were paid their current rate per mile while driving and an equivalent amount hour for what ever else they are required to do, annual earnings would be considerably higher -- like my former $72,000 drivin

  18. 18. Jim Park [ January 23, 2012 @ 07:16AM ]

    True enough Mike, and thanks for the comments. I didn't drill down that deep because it was beyond the scope of this particular rant. However, I've always thought that particular arrangement was backwards -- where the brokers sets the rate and makes his percentage before the guy doing the work. Try calling United Airlines and telling them all you are willing to pay for a trip from LA to Chicago is $99. All you will hear from the airline is a dial tone.

    So why do truckers allow brokers to set the rate? It really ought to be the other way around, but as long as there are still enough dummies who will haul for less than cost, the serious operators will struggle to get rates up. The solution is to stop dealing with brokers who pay substandard rates, and if that means staying home, then stay home. What's the point in working for nothing, or paying for the privilege of hauling somebody's freight?

    These big changes are going to come in small steps, but we have

  19. 19. stephen webster [ March 07, 2014 @ 04:49AM ]

    In Canada approx. 60% of truck drivers are doing other jobs because they do not want to drive truck for very low pay. The shippers and trucking co.(s) keep bring in new drivers because the ( truck driver shortage)

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Author Bio

Jim Park

Equipment Editor

Truck journalist 13 years, commercial driver 20 years. Joined us in 2007. Specializes in technical/equipment material (including Tire Report), brings real-world perspective to test drives.

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