Trucking companies have no problem finding business these days. Many carriers are actually turning work away because they do not have enough drivers to meet the increased demand for freight. Meanwhile, other carriers are scrambling to expand in order to accommodate the increased demand generated from an improving economy. The industry as a whole added 8,600 jobs in May alone.
Trucking isn’t the only industry adding jobs. Just one month ago, unemployment hit 5.4%, the lowest it’s been since May of 2008. That’s good news for the economy as a whole, especially since the improvement seems to be part of a continuing trend. But adding new jobs is not necessarily good news for the trucking industry, which doesn’t have the drivers to fill the positions they need.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA) estimates that the U.S. will need over 200,000 more truckers by 2022.
The persistent driver shortage has the potential to act as a drag on the economy as a whole, since so many other industries depend on the fast, affordable delivery of goods. And certainly the need to fight for the limited pool of available drivers is changing the game for carriers, which are starting to compete with each other to offer higher pay and better benefits packages. If the competition evolves into a wage war, pay could increase high enough to change the industry.
Part of the problem is that driving is difficult and not everyone can do it. Besides the necessary skill and training, drivers must be physically healthy enough to stand up to the rigors of the job, which tend to tire the body. Another issue is that long-haul drivers in particular must spend a lot of time on the road away from family, battling loneliness, stress, and boredom. Most new recruits leave after just a year on the job.
But the stories of rapidly rising pay actually hides another, possibly more serious problem; even with recent improvements, compensation for professional drivers is much lower than it used to be.
The problem is that driver pay has not kept up with the rest of inflation. Between 2001 and 2013, average annual driver pay rose by well over $7000, but the average U.S. wage rose much faster—in 2001, the average trucker made about 1% less than the average US worker, and by 2013 that gap had widened to 13%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Money is not the only problem the trucking industry has and there are other steps carriers can and should take besides raising pay, such as improving training and recruitment methods and giving drivers more control over how much they earn. But for an already difficult job to pay less in inflation-adjusted dollars every year is a serious issue.
If the increasing demand for drivers forces carriers to raise pay back up to where it was a decade or two ago, that might not be a bad thing.