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How to Improve the Plight of the Truck Driver

by Saleel V. Sabnis, Esq.

The heart of the U.S. economy is arguably the trucking industry. Nearly 71% of all the freight tonnage moved in the U.S. is on trucks. Without the industry, the economy would come to a standstill. According to the American Transportation Association, more than 3.5 million truck drivers move 10.5 billion tons of freight annually. Simply stated, the growth of this country’s economy is severely stunted without the trucking industry and able drivers.

Yet, one must consider the plight of this country’s truck driver. There has been a recent dip in those entering (or staying) in the profession, which may be predictable upon closer scrutiny. Drivers spend weeks away from home essentially in solitude. Driver health has become an increasing concern due to long hours sitting and the lack of healthy food choices on the road. And then there is compensation. According to government data, the 1.7 million tractor-trailer truck drivers in the United States earned an average of $44,500 in 2018. Many truck drivers are paid on a per-mile basis, which means that some of them earn less than the federal minimum wage. Over the past several decades, driver pay has fallen dramatically when adjusted for inflation. The drop in salary is coupled with longer hours — as much as 80 hours are common some studies suggest— because drivers spend many more “non-driving” or “off-duty” hours than they used to at customer locations waiting to pick up cargo and make deliveries which is uncompensated time.

Indeed, drivers who work as employees of behemoth companies make a middle-class income and have better hours. But those drivers are not representative of the hundreds of thousands of other drivers who are struggling. Because driver pay is low, trucking companies have, according to some research, a turnover rate as high as 95 percent. Lobbyists for the industry are taking another route to enlarge the applicant pool by pushing the Trump administration to lower the minimum age for commercial driver’s licenses to 18 from 21 despite a strong correlation between younger drivers and accident rates.  Not surprisingly for the past several years, the trucking industry has openly declared that it can’t find enough drivers to fill existing positions (a shortage of approximately 50,000 drivers which could inflate to six figures within the next decade).

The remedy to these ills cannot be effectuated overnight. However, there are baby steps which can be taken to improve the lives and incomes of this country’s valued truck drivers. The government should require that trucking companies and freight customers compensate drivers for every hour of work, including non-driving tasks or otherwise come up with a scheme where drivers are entitled to earn minimum wage and overtime for all of their “road” hours regarding of the actual “driving time.” Of course, increased pay is central but coupling pay with a benefits package is equally prudent. An employer can discourage driver turnover by offering graduated incentives so that the longer a truck driver stays with the company, the better their benefits. Instituting career advancement or professional development programs is another to way to keep drivers happy. Handing out promotions or job title changes can have a strong effect as drivers want to feel as if they are moving up through the company. To effectively address the driver shortage, trucking companies should look for ways to entice more women, minorities, and veterans. Minorities and women are an underrepresented group within the trucking industry. Veterans are particularly important as many are looking to transition into new careers.

And then there is the general branding of the industry as a whole. Operations managers or safety directors should utilize a more strategic approach in using social media for driver recruitment. Posting driver positions on social media channels may seem obvious in 2019 but trucking companies should not only use social media to recruit drivers; they use social channels to share information on their company culture as well and express who they are as a company to potential drivers via current employee testimonials and company mission statements.

For all the talk that self-driving trucks one day might render these issues moot, the reality is that truck drivers are not going away anytime soon. Just look around you. Everything you see has probably seen the inside of a truck in some form. It’s time that we take care of our valued truck drivers.

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