The chicken-little tactics behind the ‘driver shortage’

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Updated Nov 15, 2021

Big trucking has been running around like chickens with their heads cut off for years now. In 1993, when I first came into the trucking industry, they were crying about a “driver shortage,” and 25 years later they are still using “chicken little” tactics to get Congress and investors to help them out of a situation they have created.

That is, if there is truly a dearth of drivers interested in working in trucking and not just a problem for large carriers holding on to who they have.

According to the OOIDA, among other arguments they make, the ATA and the mega-carriers cry driver shortage to get Congress to approve the introduction of CDL drivers as young as 18 years old for over-the-road interstate operations, and I tend to believe what they say. These interests are taking it a step further of late by playing upon our sympathies in an effort to get Congress to approve for commercial application the driver training our young men and women coming out of the military have already received during their service. As a veteran, I can certainly appreciate that, and feel that is a viable option. (FMCSA has a comment period open now on a proposed pilot program for under-21 military veteran CDL holders.)

However, I also feel it probably depends highly upon the individual. Speaking for myself, I was not mature enough at 18 to take on such a responsibility.

At the same time, according to a report released in 2016 by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, there were more than 400,000 new Commercial Driver’s Licenses issued in 2015. Which begs the question: What seems to be the problem?

From what I see, looking at the bigger picture farther down the long road, all the alarm of a “driver shortage” might work awfully well in getting investors to put more money into autonomous vehicle research and testing. Driver wages are and always have been one of the biggest expenses of operations for any company.

Though they’ve been rising a bit lately,  we’ve all seen the inflation-adjusted wage projections from late 1970s/early 1980s driver pay. The average trucker’s wage, suffice it to say, hasn’t come close to keeping up the inflation rate since. Driver pay should be closer to $100,000 a year for a company driver, all things considered. Those gigs are few and far between in today’s world.

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Yet money is not everything. Though I have left positions because of pay, I have also stayed on at jobs even though the pay was not great. Why do drivers leave, most of the time? I have left jobs because I was lied to and stolen from. I know drivers who’ve quit because they felt like a number, or were disrespected. Drivers leave over home time. Many discover this is not a lifestyle they can commit to. It’s not for the weak, after all. It is hard on marriages, hard on families, hard on most all relationships.

Still, I’m not falling for chicken little, the tactics used to convince the outside world of a fundamental “driver shortage.” Yes, we live in a world separate from the rest. We live in a world that requires grit, determination, commitment, and more patience and professionalism than we are given credit for. Still we stay, we have an office with a view, no sunset or sunrise is the same. We see the degradation of this world, but we also see the beauty. More than anything else, we see the future trucking can provide for our families. For the most part we do a sometimes thankless job for our nation’s economy, and all we ask in return is fair treatment and pay for the value we offer.

When I was a Marine fresh out of boot camp I was considered a newbie, and when I became a heavy equipment operator with the Local 400 I was an apprentice for four years. As a heavy highway engineer apprentice my starting wage was $18.63 an hour with $250 kicked in my weekly check, a dollar for every mile I was away from home. In my second year I was bumped up to $20.63 and the year after that $22.63. Each time I was sent on a job I received that dollar a mile for every mile from home in my weekly check as per-diem. The following year my state voted in its “right to work” law and my check fell from $22.63 to $13.75. I began to see the writing on the wall, so I elected to drive truck. However, if I had finished out my apprenticeship I would have graduated to journeyman status. With more time spent, I would have eventually become a master journeyman.

Every profession has levels of achievement it recognizes whether formally or informally. Though it may be an unwritten policy, experience counts. Truckers too often are thrown right into the fray. While most drivers are considered rookies by other drivers until they hit the five-year mark (and some of us still consider ourselves rookies even after 20 years), lawyers, lawmakers, and law enforcers consider a trucker a professional as soon as they solo or become a full-fledged team. Just ask any driver that has ever been sued in a court of law.

Almost every company I have worked for has established the five-year mark as something of significance as well, because many will not hire you until you hit that mark, and most will advertise a pay bump at that level of experience. But does five years make you a professional? An OTR driver might turn 140,000 miles a year. At that pace in five years the driver has turned almost three-quarters of a million miles, and I have heard it said if you make it past five years, you are in it for life. In other words, once past that milestone, it is a lifestyle you have accepted and learned to manage.

Yet while that is an unspoken milestone more or less accepted by the industry, drivers are still considered “unskilled” in eyes of labor laws. And the pay really does not match other professions once that level of experience is reached. Does anybody believe an attorney would be happy making just a couple of thousand more a year than someone right out of school?

Reality is we have a retention problem equal to or greater than whatever “driver shortage” may or may not exist. If companies want to be able to correct their recruiting problem, they need to correct their retention problems first. Raise your wage and reward achievements in safety and experience. Stop disrespecting people by lying to them, nickel-and-diming drivers to death until they get mad enough to leave. Live up your promises (i.e., getting drivers home). Only after that will it be possible to build the industry with new blood. At the current CDL acquisition rate the opportunities will fill up fast, and more drivers will stay past the five-year mark. Companies, then, can quit running around like chickens with their heads cut off.