The internet doesn’t carry goods — only more and more orders for them. Self-driving trucks are a long way off. In the meantime, somebody has to haul freight and make deliveries.
So the U.S. economy needs more people like Branden Miller. But they’re getting hard to come by.
Miller, 30, is a long-haul trucker, the co-owner of an Arizona-based business that runs three trucks through Werner Enterprises. He says he hauls “anything that will fit in the back of a dry van.” He got into trucking five years ago for the classic reasons: “It’s a decent-paying job that allows you a lot of freedom to see the country.”
But the work definitely has its downsides. Miller sees his wife and two young children only three or four days a month — something he hopes will change as the business grows so he can hire other people to do the driving. If, that is, he can find and keep them.
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Recently a driver Miller had trained as a student and then hired full time quit after working just a couple of months. The guy took a local pickup-and-delivery job with a company that used to require three to five years of experience before even considering a new driver. Nowadays they can’t be so picky.
The U.S. trucking industry is short about 50,000 drivers, estimates Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations. The driver shortage ranked first among industry concerns in the American Transportation Research Institute’s annual survey, released last October.
The strong economy means more stuff to haul, even as increasing numbers of truckers retire. The average age of over-the-road truckers like Miller is 49, compared with 42 for the U.S. workforce as a whole. (Miller’s business partner is 51.) Forecasts of massive job losses from autonomous trucks don’t help. Few people want to join a dying profession. With unemployment low, there are other options.
In response, pay is up. The median salary for drivers who haul a variety of goods nationally is about $53,000, according to an ATA survey published in March. That’s a $7,000 increase in five years, or about $4,000 when corrected for inflation. For private fleet drivers serving individual companies, such as PepsiCo or Walmart, it’s $86,000, up from $73,000.
But a shortfall remains. Recent regulatory changes exacerbate the problem. So does an increasing shortage of places to park.
Federal regulations require truckers to track four different timers. The first limits a driver to working 70 hours in an eight-day period. The second limits the workday to 14 consecutive hours, regardless of what the driver is doing; this clock keeps going even if the driver takes a nap. The third caps driving at 11 hours within that 14. The fourth requires a 30-minute break at least every eight hours.
Since April 1, all truckers have had to use electronic monitors rather than paper records to track their driving clocks. For Miller, who has always worked with electronic logs, the change wasn’t a big deal. But for a substantial number of truckers, it was, requiring both new equipment and new habits — and cutting their take-home pay.
In the short term, information technology can help. This fall, a group of Midwestern states will start listing open truck parking spaces on LED road signs along major freight corridors.
Rest areas are, to put it bluntly, terrible places to make anything more than the briefest stop. They don’t sell meals, fuel or anything else besides vending machine fare. They don’t offer electricity. They don’t have showers.
They stay lousy because truck-stop operators, fast-food chains and gas stations don’t want the competition. At their behest, federal law forbids commercializing interstate rest areas.
More and better parking would mean more productive hours, lower fuel costs, less air pollution and greater take-home pay. To attract people to a grueling and essential job, allowing more oases would be a good start.