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Trucking Companies Are Short On Drivers, Drivers Say They're Short On Pay

Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3

Almost all the stuff we buy spends some time in a truck before it gets to us. So, since store shelves are full and sales are strong this holiday season, you might assume that the trucking industry is doing great.

They're not.

Trucking companies say they are critically short of drivers. Truckers say they’re really just short of pay.

Teaching truckers

One of the fast growing parts of the trucking industry these days is driver training. And students at schools like APEX CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) Institute in Kansas City, Kansas, are in high demand.

”If they’ve got a clean driving record, and a clean background, they’ve got a job waiting when they leave here," says Jeffery Steinberg, APEX Director and founder. “So, right now it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it, from a shortage perspective."

One of Steinberg’s students, 45-year-old Wane Berry, retired from the Army two years ago. He’s worked four jobs since then, including two for General Motors and a stint as an advisor to the Saudi National Guard. But nothing captured his imagination like trucking. But Berry was offered a job trucking, before he even began training. Steinberg says that’s not uncommon.

“Anybody will hire him,” says Steinberg of Berry. “I would have recruiters get in knife fights for him out in the parking lot to try to get him to come to work for them.”

The American Trucking Associations says the industry is down 48,000 drivers.  Noel Perry, trucking expert at FTR Transportation Intelligence says the industry is short by 100,000 drivers, the way he figures it.

“But it’s a relative number,” cautions Perry.

Perry figures his shortage number based on how much of its capacity the American trucking industry is in use. Now, that figure is close to 95 percent. Historically, Perry figures the norm is more like 90 percent.

A hit to companies

More than a three million long-haul truckers work American highways.  Perry says the current driver shortage isn’t big enough to cause a noticeable difference for consumers, but it is a pain for companies who need to contract trucking companies to ship stuff.

“That doesn’t mean the freight doesn’t get moved.  It simply means it’s a little bit harder to find that last increment of capacity,” says Perry.

Companies complain that the scarce availability of drivers is forcing them to miss growth opportunities, and many, like Werner Enterprises, are responding.

“In the last couple of weeks we’ve announced two of the largest pay raises in our company’s history,” says Werner President Derek Lathers.

Leathers says Werner has boosted pay by $5,000 a year for some drivers, $10,000 for others.

“We want 2016 to be the year of the driver for us,” says Werner. “And we want our drivers to feel and know that they’re the life blood of this company.” 

It’s not just pay increases, and signing bonuses. Trucking companies say they’re working to get drivers home more regularly, and cut aggravation on the job. But, Todd Spencer with the Owner Operators Independent Drivers Association says trucking companies have a long way to go.

“Companies go through drivers like oats through a horse,” says Spencer. “I mean, drivers are considered very much a disposable commodity.”

Spencer says just look at the turnover rate. It can vary wildly by company, but averages a whopping 100 percent.

“One hundred percent turnover, means you had two people for every position. You just didn’t keep them. That’s not a shortage,” argues Spencer.

Now, the average age for truck drivers is 49. Many are just retiring, and that accounts for some of the turnover. Bob Costello with the American Trucking Associations argues that the churn is a good thing for drivers, who are following promises of better working conditions, or pay, and jumping from job to job.

“This is what I call the free agency of trucking. If you have a good driving record, you can leave a carry today, and have a job this afternoon,” says Costello.

Credit Frank Morris / KCUR

The long haul

But many new truck drivers don’t last their first year. 

For some, the job’s too hard on their families, they make mistakes, or they don’t earn as much as expected.

For one thing, most drivers get paid by the mile, not by the hour. That means that delays at loading docks, in traffic, or whatever, cut straight into their earnings.

Last year, median annual pay for drivers came in just under $40,000. Costello says that long-haul truckers bring home a median pay of around $50,000. But, they are on the road up to 14 hours a day, up to 80 hours a week, sometimes weeks on end — working, sleeping, eating truck stop food, in a truck.

Veterans truck drivers like Gus Wagner say it’s a tough lifestyle.

“You ask a question about why there’s a driver shortage. And what it is, there’s a pay shortage. Because why do you want to leave your house, leave your family, leave your kids, when you could make as much at a local job?" he asks while filling up at the Petro truck stop in Oak Grove, Missouri. "It just doesn’t make any sense."

As trucking companies work to rebalance the relationship with their drivers, they face new safety regulations in the next couple of years will likely slow trucks down, and cut the number of hours drivers can work, lowering productivity. Both Costello and Perry see much bigger truck driving shortages coming before the end of the decade. 

“At current trends, in the next 10 years, it could reach 175,000,” says Costello. "Now let me tell you, I don’t believe that’s going to happen, and if it does, our economy is in a lot of trouble." Costello warns. 

Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter, @FrankNewsman.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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