Driver retention problem draws focus at trucking roundtable

July 9, 2021

Mark Schremmer

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After years of persistence from the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the issue of driver retention took center stage in front of leaders from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Labor.

On Thursday, July 8, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and FMCSA acting Administrator Meera Joshi hosted a roundtable discussion with trucking industry stakeholders – including OOIDA President Todd Spencer – to discuss driver recruitment and retention.

Although the American Trucking Associations has long framed the issue as a driver shortage problem, much of the roundtable discussion focused on large turnover rates of large fleets. For decades, OOIDA has argued that the issue hasn’t been an inability to hire long-haul truckers but rather an inability to keep them around because of low pay and poor working conditions.

As part of the discussion, FMCSA noted that turnover rates for large long-haul carriers are more than 90% and about 72% for small carriers.

“Driver retention is really fundamental to our supply chain resiliency from job stability to overall roadway safety,” Joshi said. “I’m grateful to the millions of men and women who transport over 70% of our nation’s freight across the country on a daily basis. This event is really about their workplace and their work conditions.”

‘Leaky bucket’

Buttigieg said it doesn’t matter how many people the industry recruits to be truck drivers if the industry is set up in a way that a majority of them will want to leave.

“It strikes me that another way to think of it is something of a leaky bucket, and that no matter how many people we pour into the industry for a moment, it’s not going to do us much good unless the jobs are reliable enough, secure enough and stable enough that people want to remain within the industry,” Buttigieg said. “And, hopefully, also stay with an individual employer long enough … to see some of the safety gains that we know correlate not only with time behind the wheel … but with time in a given organization.”

The industry stakeholders included representatives from such groups as OOIDA, ATA, and the Teamsters, as well as safety advocates, and academic experts.

Much of the discussion focused on the idea that better pay and working conditions would keep more drivers around and, ultimately, increase highway safety.

Pay and working conditions

“Trucking is a tough life,” said Spencer, who started his career as a trucker and still holds a commercial driver’s license. “It demands the best, and it requires the best. As we learned during the pandemic, trucking is an essential industry. But it is every single day. It’s always essential. And the issues now with retention, every employer in the country has it right now. The secret is pay, benefits and working conditions.”

Currently, truck drivers’ pay and working conditions aren’t great, Spencer said. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for truck drivers was $47,130 in 2020. While that is well above the U.S. median personal income of $35,977, it seems like much less when you consider the amount of hours truckers work and that they often do so without being able to return home for weeks at a time.

“I should point out that for a truck driver, this is not a 40-hour week,” Spencer said. “It’s generally 60, 70, 80 hours and sometimes more of actual work. And then there’s more time that goes along with it. So, yeah, it’s a very, very demanding job. And realistically, the economic rewards haven’t kept up for the last 40 years since our industry was deregulated. And, you know, it seems like having them catch up is a very, very elusive goal.

“Your pay is determined by what you can be replaced for. And right now, that’s not all that much money.”

Improving the quality of the job

Steve Viscelli, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Big Rig, Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream,” said the solution is clear.

“We need to improve the quality of existing trucking jobs,” Viscelli said. “We have to ensure that all driver time is counted and well compensated and that drivers are properly classified. In the end, what we need to do is promote the retention of experienced, safe drivers.”

The largest problem involves entry-level trucking jobs where the pay is often the lowest and the conditions are the worst, Viscelli said.

“Our current driver pipeline is organized backward,” he said. “It throws workers into the deep end with almost no support. They start out in schools with little investment in their long-term success, and then most of them can only get the toughest jobs working over the road for weeks or months at a time without the systems promise free training, but then lock workers into a year of working 80 or more hours per week, often for minimum wage or less.”

More work to do

The U.S. Department of Transportation and FMCSA said it will continue to engage regularly with industry stakeholders to address driver retention and other issues in the trucking industry.

“There’s certainly more work to do and that will be detailed, complex, painstaking,” Joshi said. “I’m not going to say that there’s a magic wand. There certainly isn’t. Somebody would have waved it by now. But we are committed to do that work regardless of how difficult and challenging it is.” LL

Lucas Oil

Mark Schremmer, senior editor, joined Land Line in 2015. An award-winning journalist and former assistant news editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal, he brings fresh ideas, solid reporting skills, and more than two decades of journalism experience to our staff.