Per-mile pay increases for professional truck drivers at for-hire motor carriers slowed in late 2022 and into 2023 as the driver hiring binge that began in late 2020 and persisted into early 2022 eased. Driver pay, retention, and turnover are all explored in the HDT Fact Book 2023, HDT's annual snapshot of where the trucking industry is, where it's been, and what its current long-term trends are.
Slower hiring needs halted the breakneck pace of driver wage gains seen in the same time frame, late 2020 and into 2022, when hourly and per-mile wages for drivers climbed at historically high rates. Base mileage and hourly pay grew more than 10% in 2021 from the year prior, according to The National Transportation Institute’s National Driver Wage Index, a composite look at pay momentum for drivers across trucking segments.
However, 2022 was a tale of two halves. Driver pay climbed by nearly 5% last year, according to NTI’s Driver Wage Index. Those gains were concentrated in the first half of the year, with pay momentum stalling in the back half, particularly the fourth quarter.
Muted changes continued into 2023’s first quarter, but wages showed signs of life in the spring months, particularly for more experienced drivers — what NTI calls cap earners.
Data from The National Transportation Institute’s National Survey of Driver Wages, a quarterly survey of hundreds of for-hire motor carriers of nearly 200 attributes that make up a driver’s total compensation, shows that fleets’ pay focus has shifted away from newer, inexperienced drivers and toward drivers at the higher end of the experience scale.
NTI surveys fleets on mileage and hourly pay by experience — one year, three years, and cap earners, aligned with typical pay models at for-hire motor carriers. Drivers with one year of experience had been seeing the largest percentage pay gains throughout the pandemic recovery period during the frenzied hiring environment. Drivers with three years of experience saw the next highest pay gains, while drivers with the most experience saw the smallest percentage gains year over year and quarter to quarter.
In 2023, however, drivers with the most experience are seeing the largest percentage gains on a quarter-to-quarter basis, with the rolling annual percentages tilting closer to their favor, too. Turnover remains persistent at the fleet level and industrywide (churn of drivers entering and exiting the industry), so the concentration on pay for experienced drivers is likely meant to promote tenure.
One prominent driver pay issue fleets are contending with in 2023 is a drop in productivity, which eats into drivers’ take-home earnings. That means while drivers may be earning more per mile, their paychecks in recent quarters often have not reflected those higher wages as fleets struggle to keep drivers’ miles up on the downside of the freight cycle.
Supplements such as fuel and safety bonuses have seen attention this year, too, as fleets use those incentives to combat productivity-related pay drops and to promote overall cost savings.
While for-hire carriers’ wage programs have been responsive to market conditions, private and dedicated fleets have remained active in adjusting their compensation, according to data from NTI’s National Private Fleet Survey and National Dedicated Fleet Survey.
Private fleet pay gains are still hovering near the 5% mark year over year, compared to the 2.3% forecasted gain for drivers at for-hire fleets. Some private fleets, seeing an opportunity to be aggressive for drivers in the lull in the for-hire segment, have increased pay by as much as 20% on a year-over-year basis.
Driver Turnover Slowed in 2022
Truck driver turnover rates fell in almost every sector and fleet size category in 2022 compared to the prior year, according to the American Transportation Research Institute’s annual cost of operations survey. Smaller fleets generally have lower turnover regardless of sector, while larger fleets generally have turnover rates that exceed 50%.
According to ATRI, less-than-truckload carriers had a turnover rate of 20.6%, slightly higher than the 2021 rate of 18.6%.
Meanwhile, among private fleets, driver turnover returned to more normal, if elevated, levels in this year’s National Private Truck Council’s Benchmarking Survey Report, reflecting 2022 statistics — after eclipsing the 20% threshold for the first time in the history of the survey last year.
This level of turnover is consistent with the aging workforce and the increased number of drivers opting for retirement, according to NPTC. As business conditions returned to a more normal pace, the demand for drivers decreased.
Driver turnover carries a cost for fleets — this year’s survey estimates $9,748, according to NPTC. Last year, the cost averaged $7,866, which was up from the $7,500 reported in the previous year.
Drilling into these onboarding costs, heavy-duty operations spend on average $9,700 (compared to $8,450 last year) to onboard a driver, while medium-duty fleets report a cost of $3,780 (compared to $6,300 last year).
Trucking employed 8.4 million people in industry-related jobs in 2022, up 405,000 from the previous year, including 3.54 million professional truck drivers, according to American Trucking Associations’ American Trucking Trends 2023.
Looking at the racial/ethnic background of drivers, with 18.3% of drivers identifying as Black, 4% as Asian, and 23.3% as Hispanic or Latino, for a total of 45.6%. In 2021, minorities accounted for 46.1% of truck drivers.
Women made up 8.1% of the nation’s drivers in 2022, according to ATA — an all-time high and the seventh straight annual increase. In 2021, ATA reported that 7.9% of the nation's drivers were women, which also was an all-time high.
The 2023 WIT Index released by the Women In Trucking Association found a higher rate of women drivers among its survey respondents. It reported that 12.1% of professional drivers who hold commercial driver’s licenses and drive heavy-duty trucks are female — down from last year’s 13.7%. However, that's still up from the 2019 report, where it was about 10%.