Failure to Deliver: What is driving the big rig operator shortage?

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Tony Moran climbs out of one of his company’s trucks. His company is searching for four new drivers. Photo by Nathan Wilson

Nathan Wilson | Reporter
Tony Moran, owner of Moran Trucking has a problem. “There’s just not enough drivers that’s available to go to work,” he says. “I could use four drivers right now and that’s in a small company.” He illustrates a conversation he frequently has. “I’ve got my customers that I haul for emailing me every day saying, ‘Hey, I need trucks’ because they can’t get their merchandise moved.”
Moran explains the problems in his industry ultimately lead to shortages. “We haul wood products out of Weyerhaeuser here and out of Boise Cascade down at Lena, or all the wood mills,” he says. “There’s a shortage on materials and it’s not really because of the mills now. It’s because they can’t get the stuff delivered because there’s a shortage of truck drivers.”

INCENTIVES

To attract applicants, many companies are offering hefty sign-on bonuses for drivers who are willing to commit to a contractual duration. Other companies offer to cover the cost of CDL training for aspiring drivers. Schneider’s website, for example, advertises seven programs for its new employees to fund the $3,000 to $10,000 it estimates as the total cost of earning a CDL, although only three are financed by their company.
Critics of sign-on bonuses believe they encourage drivers to maintain an eye on the exit, staying only long enough to collect the incentives before seeking a new offer. Drivers must also be cautious since, besides longevity, bonuses may include clauses requiring them to meet fuel performance targets, earn certifications or spread the bonuses over long periods.
Moran complains his company has difficulty attracting applicants against the backdrop of expensive incentives. “Companies with 500 trucks or a thousand trucks, they’re giving these tremendous sign-on bonuses. We’re trying to pay as much as possible, but our business is a small business. We can’t compete with that.”
Drivers frequently change companies for better conditions, desirable routes and higher compensation, but the American Trucking Association (ATA) asserts sign-on bonuses help fuel yearly turnover rates of nearly 90% from 2012-18 at for-hire carriers, which transport goods on contract. For the same period, it estimated only 8% yearly turnover among private fleets, which tend to offer better pay and more time at home.

This article published in the May 12, 2022, print edition

Many private trucking fleets have increased pay during recent years to secure their workforces. Retailer Wal-Mart and food-service supplier Sysco recently announced pay increases among their private fleet drivers to as much as $110,000 per year. In its April 7 presentation, Wal-Mart described the amount as nearly double the industry average for long-haul (OTR) drivers. The generous pay scales reflect a focus on driver retention among these companies.
Compounding Moran’s problem is an insurance requirement that he hire experienced drivers. “There’s just nobody putting the applications in and the ones who do put the applications in may not be eligible to work because of insurance.” He explains. “We require three years of over the road experience and 25 years old”. Larger freight carriers such as Knight-Swift Transportation and J.B. Hunt Transport Services get around this because they are self-insured and are not subject to insurance premiums or risk-mitigation requirements.
Commercial driver’s license (CDL) schools nationwide train a continuous stream of new drivers to address the shortfall. Each year, more than 450,000 people obtain a CDL, yet the deficit of commercial drivers grew from 50,000 in 2017 to 80,000 in 2021. During this time, over 2,000,000 new drivers have entered an occupation estimated to employ fewer than 4,000,000. For an industry to induct more than half its workforce in five years could be a sign of explosive growth, but total employment numbers indicate it’s a symptom of high turnover.
Even if Moran could hire freshly minted drivers, Natchitoches is ill-equipped to provide them.
CDL course instructor Don Williams teaches a group of students how to operate and maintain trucks. CLTCC photo
TRAINING
CLTCC is the only local option for CDL training, and the classes are infrequent. “It’s been quite some time since we’ve offered our CDL class here at the Natchitoches campus simply because we have two 18 wheelers and the trucks rotate through all eight of our campuses,” says Gwen Fontenot, interim dean. She says the Natchitoches campus can’t offer the course frequently enough. “We’re having trouble keeping up with the demand,” she says. “We see interest daily.”
Fontenot explains the trucks aren’t the only issue, so are money, time and small class sizes. “The class is approximately $5,500 so unless we have some type of aid available to help support that student, most likely they are not going to attend,” she says. “They’re looking to get into the program as soon as possible, and sometimes they’ll have to wait several months before it rotates back.” She adds a final problem to the list. “Another issue we have is finding instructors, because they can make six figures driving a truck, or they can make $50,000 or $60,000 teaching.”
Don Williams teaches the CDL course at CLTCC. He’s admits he doesn’t have all the answers. “I don’t understand at all the driver’s shortage,” he says. “You do have people retiring every year, but you also have new drivers coming on every year.”
Williams believes industry changes play a part. “What I think has a bearing on the shortage of drivers is so many people have started ordering things online which means there’s more items being shipped. It takes a driver to deliver it to the home address,” he says. “I’m not sure what has caused the driver shortage other than just the increase of the freight that needs to be delivered.”
Williams offers insight into the local market. “In Natchitoches, you have a lot of local hauling out of the lumber mills by local people, but you do have major companies haul also,” he says. “You have a big flatbed company that I have seen advertising for log truck drivers, and I don’t understand that other than maybe it’s easier for the companies they’re hauling for to contract through a major company than the individual person or group that only has a couple of log trucks.” He suggests an explanation. “I’m not sure why unless, naturally, if it costs less for the major company to do it than the local people, they’ll go with the least expensive means.”
Some in the trucking industry claim the shortage of drivers is a myth and argue structural problems in the industry benefit large carriers to the detriment of drivers and smaller companies. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) insists large freight companies and their lobbyists have spent years manufacturing a narrative of driver shortages to create a glut of new entrants.
OOIDA blames the continuous influx of new drivers for depressing wages in the trucking industry by pitting small freight carriers with experienced and expensive drivers against larger carriers that are able to churn through novices. In this environment, many newly licensed drivers burn out and quit out of frustration before becoming eligible to drive with smaller carriers or become owner-operators.
Buried in the footnotes of a 2019 analysis, ATA chief economist and senior vice president Bob Costello indicated there were 3.7 million vehicles in the U.S. that required a CDL to operate. Similarly, he noted there were more than 10 million CDL holders in the U.S. but that most were no longer employed as truck drivers.
To finance their CDL training, most new drivers assume debt, accept government subsidized financial aid or sign contracts requiring them to reimburse their employer for training costs upon early separation. The result is the largest freight carriers pass on the cost of turnover within their industry to drivers and tax payers.
Drivers who persist in the industry often pursue independence as an owner-operator only to fall victim to predatory vehicle financing techniques. Owner-operator financing is often promoted by carriers as a way for drivers to increase their earnings, but the model faces criticism for saddling drivers with unfavorable financing terms while shifting the burden of maintaining older, less reliable vehicles onto them. To address these issues the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is accepting applications from industry veterans through May 13 for a Truck Leasing Task Force to review vehicle leasing agreements for evidence of predatory practices.
Eight CLTCC campuses have shared the two trucks used in their CDL training program. It’s unclear when the next CDL course will be offered at the Natchitoches campus once it is transferred to Bossier Parish Community College. CLTCC Photo

INNOVATIVE STRATEGIES
Steve Rush, owner of Carbon Express, believes small carriers must innovate to compete with large trucking fleets. His company has challenged orthodoxy by paying their long-haul drivers hourly wages rather than compensating them by mileage. “If they would take care of these people the right way they wouldn’t be sued. They wouldn’t be sitting there worried about being unionized. They can’t run a trucking company without that driver,” he explains.
Rush also offers his drivers over-time pay, arguing the 1938 law making it unnecessary is outdated. “(The rule says) you do not have to pay an interstate truck driver time and a half, and they want to keep it there. Are they nuts? We can’t find drivers and you’re saying we want (to keep) a rule that says I don’t have to pay overtime,” he says. “Somebody who’s never driven a truck make(s) a statement that it’s not just about pay, and every time I hear that I want to throw up. Pay is the way.”
Rush hears a recurring objection to paying his drivers by the hour. “People say to me, ‘how can you pay a truck driver by time, all they’re going to do is steal time.’” he said. “I say to them, if you want to find time stealers go look around with your professional people: doctors, lawyers. There’s time stealers in every walk of life. Why is it that all truck drivers are time stealers? They’re not. For the most part, they’re hardworking, honest people.”
Driver pay isn’t the only industry norm Rush flouts; he abandoned the use of sleeper cabs more than a decade ago. He minimizes overnight trips by relaying cargo between drivers, and when a driver must be away from home the company pays for their lodging. He describes the feedback the received then and now. “I had one of my drivers from Illinois say this to me a few months ago. ‘I almost didn’t stay with you when you made that move because I was intimidated about checking into the motel,’ and now that person will tell you flat-out, ‘I’ll never sleep in the truck again.’”
Rush explains day cabs reduce fuel costs by reducing weight and eliminating overnight idling, and offer his company other competitive advantages. “Outside of the motel bill, there’s no negative side. It’s cheaper to buy. It’s safer to drive. It allows you to take more weight on net for the customer,” he says. It also retains drivers. “If I put sleeper cabs in my trucks, I would wake up the next morning with no drivers.”
Rush spent nearly two decades as a truck driver, but he still faces opposition to his ideas. “When I say day cabs are the way it should be, I absolutely mean it. When I say that to a cousin of mine in northern Maine who’s in the trucking business, he’ll look at me like I have four heads,” he says. Rush is also from a small town in Maine, and he credits his roots with the success of his message in an industry that offers a lifeline to rural communities. “Country people listen generally to country people because country people are different in a lot of ways from the city cousins,” he says. He hopes better working conditions will restore trucking to the status it enjoyed during its golden age, and recalls a time when surveyed drivers consistently listed high job satisfaction.
“Most truck drivers enjoy driving a truck, so when you live your life and you’re doing something you enjoy, that’s the battle,” he says. “Now in the last 40 years we’ve made it a job of last resort.”