Higher Pay for the Long Haul

Part of the truck driver turnover problem is getting “paid by the mile but regulated by the hour.”

April 20, 2021

Truck on the Road

By Pat Pape

This is the second of a two-part NACS Daily series on the truck driver shortage in the U.S.

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—The biggest obstacle to attracting new truck drivers may be pay. While Walmart truckers—all of them employees of the retail giant—make a highly publicized salary of about $90,000 a year, the average annual wage for a tractor-trailer truck driver was $45,570 as of May 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Indeed.com, the job board site, puts the average salary at $62,835 a year, based on more than 400,000 salaries anonymously submitted to Indeed and data culled from job posts over the past 36 months as of April 12. Indeed notes that the typical driver only stays about a year on the job.

The glitch in pay is that “drivers are paid by the mile but regulated by the hour,” said Norita Taylor, public relations director for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. The federal hours of service regulations, which mandate how many hours a trucker can drive in a day and when rest breaks are required, “make it very challenging to make a living if you aren’t paid by the hour.”

The average driver works about 65 hours a week “and is not coming home with that much [money],” said Dr. Michael Belzer, a former truck driver who earned a Ph.D. and now studies the trucking industry as an economics professor at Wayne State University. “And a lot of their time is unpaid, nondriving time,” such as waiting while their trailers are loaded or unloaded.

Shipping is one of the most competitive markets, and “competitive markets drive down rates,” he added. “The shippers and consignees have the leverage. They’re the ones that get the companies competing with each other. The carriers will often take below-compensatory rates to move freight. They want to keep the trucks moving. They may lose money, but they figure on the next load, they’ll make money.”

Trucking is a cyclical industry “that is very commoditized with very thin margins, which makes it difficult for any carrier to provide significant pay increases without a larger catalyst,” said Harness. “Unfortunately, there are no short-term fixes to this problem, but as an industry, there will be opportunities for more discussion—both by trucking companies and our shippers—in the longer-term.”

Self-Driving Trucks

Although there is no immediate solution to the need for working truckers, many things are going on in the industry. Numerous companies, including Daimler, Aurora, Waymo and Embark Trucks, are working to develop a self-driving truck that can move goods across the country safely. TuSimple of San Diego already has 40 autonomous trucks transporting goods on U.S. roadways. So far, all of them have a backup driver on board. The company plans to create routes through Texas and between Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Florida, in the next few years.

Belzer has no doubt that these efforts will come to fruition and thinks self-driving trucks could be a solution for moving merchandise and materials between warehouses. But he’s skeptical about seeing them zip along the nation’s highways.

“There are so many pieces behind making this happen, and the development of this technology is expensive. Right now, we’re paying truck drivers minimum wage at best. Why would I pay three times as much for an autonomous truck when I can pay the truck driver so little?” he said. “And I’m not convinced that the public is willing to see an 18-wheeler going down the road without a driver.”

Justin Harness, chief revenue officer of U.S. Xpress Enterprises, one of the nation's largest carriers, predicts that high driver turnover will continue, “exacerbated by lower commercial driver’s license school enrollment and the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse,” he said. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that high tide conditions will persist for a long while.”

Read part one of this two-part series on the truck driver shortage in the U.S. in Monday’s NACS Daily.

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. See more of her articles at patpape.wordpress.com.