The real reasons for the driver shortage

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Bottom line: a driver is entrusted with a $140,000 tractor and trailer and often times well over a half million dollars worth of cargo, and then he’s treated like a second class citizen by the shipper, the consignee, his dispatcher, and the very citizenry he’s serving.” –Steve Myers, Moser Motor Sales, Berne, IN

I can usually count on Steve Myers (quoted above) to cut right to the chase on any number of covered in this space, but one he knows particularly well concerns the oft-discussed “driver shortage” that’s now plaguing many segments of the trucking business after taking a nearly three-year hiatus.

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That’s in part because – besides being extremely sharp – Steve drove an 18 wheeler for 16 years to make a living, hanging up the keys in 1994 for the best of reasons: to spend more time at home with family.

“The pay was OK – not great, but OK,” he told me by email. “But the attitude, at the time, was that there were plenty of drivers, and that getting a seat filled was no problem.”

And it’s that lack of respect towards the truck driving profession – which has only worsened in the decade and a half since Steve left the business to sell Fords for a living – that’s really crippling the industry’s ability to recruit and keep drivers.

“I can think of all kinds of reasons for someone to make driving a career; I can also think of many reasons that a person should stay as far away from 18 wheelers as possible,” Steve told me.

“Bottom line: a driver is entrusted with a $140,000 tractor and trailer and often times well over a half million dollars worth of cargo, and then he’s treated like a second class citizen by the shipper, the consignee, his dispatcher, and the very citizenry he’s serving,” he added.

One of the reason’s Steve got in touch with me on the subject of the driver shortage concerns comments Richard Stocking, president and COO of Swift Transportation, made last week on the subject. “There’s been a big change in the employee [pool] we see today; we just aren’t raising kids today to be truck drivers,” Stocking said.

“If the trucking companies really treated their current drivers with respect and admiration for a job well done, wouldn’t the drivers’ children and other children aspire to work for them?” Steve wondered. “Would Mr. Stocking want his children or grandchildren to drive a truck for a living? Would you be happy to have one of your kids want to drive a truck for a living?”

That’s the crux of the problem right there in a nutshell. No one wants their kids to be truck drivers, because driving a truck for a living is looked down upon. And in fact, Swift’s Stocking noted that he’s not encouraging any of his three sons to go down the truck driving career path either (more on that later).

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But are we surprised by this? The Department of Labor, for example, files the position of “truck driver” in the “unskilled labor” category.

Here’s another interesting point to consider. Many industry experts routinely point to the extension of unemployment benefits as one of the reasons the driver shortage continues to grow even though the national unemployment rate still hovers above 9%.

Yet isn’t it a sad commentary that a driver can apparently bring home an unemployment check that nearly equals his or her pay, without being away from home and family for three weeks at a time, or worry about getting enough miles to keep their paycheck consistent? In other words, is their pay so low now that it’s equivalent in value to an unemployment check?

Now let’s return to Swift’s Stocking for a moment. He said during a panel discussion at TCA’s convention last week that Don Schneider (founder of TL carrier Schneider National) once noted back in the late 1990s that truck drivers would eventually need to be paid $75,000 a year in order to attract the “best and brightest” into the profession.

“But if we really want to raise wages to this level, if we really want to commit to this kind of change, we need the shipper’s help to do it,” Stocking stressed. “Because the trucking business today is like the dairy farm of old: you make your money in pennies on the dollar.”

In short, solving the driver shortage issue is going to require change on a very broad front, in terms of pay and perception. It isn’t easy and it won’t be achieved overnight but it can be done – and we’ll look at some suggested paths to follow starting with tomorrow’s post.

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

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