Life on the asphalt

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Work-life balance is more important than ever to today's professional truck driver.” –Mike Hinz, vice president of recruiting for Schneider National

Make no bones about it: driving a truck for a living is a tough and dangerous job. Even if drivers get home every night, it’s no easy picnic navigating today’s crowded and highly unpredictable roadways in a big rig for hundreds of miles at a time. Throw in bad weather – be it rain, snow, whatever – and it’s an even more aggravating task.

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None of this is new to any trucking industry veteran out there – it goes with the territory, so to speak. The problem, fewer and fewer “newbies” want to make a career out of driving tractor-trailers these days.

I’m specifically talking about the dearth of “new blood” in the driver’s seat – folks under the age of 35 that want to make a living hauling freight up and down the ribbons of asphalt connecting our nation.

Rollin Pizzala sums up pretty effectively why the traditional long-haul truck driving job doesn’t appeal to the next generation of workers. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune back in February this year, he talks about the daily stresses involved in piloting big rigs as a career – with the snowy environs of Interstate 65 providing a fitting backdrop.

Recently, I listened to the CEO of a large for-hire TL carrier talk about how difficult it is to get younger workers into the driver’s seat – and this despite national unemployment hovering near 10%. On average, this executive said, company long-haul drivers take home about $45,000 a year. But in reality, it should be a $65,000 to $70,000 a year job due to the days away from home and family, the difficulties faced on the road, etc.

Carriers I’ve talked to say that pay must rise to attract more truck driver candidates – as well as to keep the ones they have. Yet the industry is still struggling in many cases to gain enough revenue to afford such increases.

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One executive recently said that since deregulation back in the 1980s, freight rates have roughly increased about 2% a year – far below the rate of inflation and far below long-term investment needs.

That’s before you add in other costs, such as higher truck prices due to emission regulations. One fleet said sticker prices for its Class 8 tractors have jumped $25,000 per unit between 2002 and 2010 – and that ain’t chump change.

Then factor in the nearly 40 new trucking regulations being put in place now or within the next few years to – many of which focus on drivers.

“You have to look at the regulatory ‘ripple effect’ from this broad context; if all of these come out on schedule in the next few years, they’ll have a significant impact on trucking,” recently noted Annette Sandberg, CEO of TranSafe Consulting and former chief administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration from 2002 to 2006.

[Here’s another view of life behind the wheel. Note in particular the re-telling of an accident caused by a four wheeler that made a last-minute, high speed decision not to take an exit ramp.]

Clouding the driver picture even further is a “generational shift” that’s now beginning to pick up speed, with 77 million “baby boomers” poised to retire over the next two decades, yet replaced by only 46 million new workers, according to numbers tracked by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD).

ASTD’s research indicates that “Generation X” workers (born between 1965 and 1979) typically value a strong balance between life and work, priding themselves on self-reliance and resourcefulness. Then there are “Generation Y” or “Millennial” workers, born between 1980 and 2000, that are more technologically savvy and desire even more workplace flexibility.

Those wants don’t necessarily jibe with the realities of the road long-haul truckers face every day. One of the more interesting takes on the “driving life,” if I can call it that, comes from a trucker named Vince – known as journey95 on YouTube.

He put together a 20 part series detailing his life behind the wheel of the big rig and perhaps the most telling moment comes right at the start of the first episode below, when Vince notes he won’t be seeing home for two weeks on this particular freight-hauling journey.

None of this, however, is to say that the truck driving job is going away. No, trucks are a necessity in the modern age. Even if you shift more freight to railroads, barges, airplanes, whatever, you still need a truck to connect the first and final miles.

And remember this, as well: there are whole segments of the U.S. where only a truck can make the pickup and delivery – places that aren’t near an airport, waterway, or rail line.

The trick, of course, will be figuring out how to re-craft the job of driving a truck to appeal not only to younger workers but current drivers as well – folks that desire better pay and home time as much as anyone else.

That, of course, will result in higher costs for carriers – costs that will, by necessity, get passed on to shippers in the form of higher rates. It’s just the reality of the freight world that relies on people willing to travel the asphalt to get stuff where it needs to go.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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