Driver turnover: the stark reality behind the statistics

December 31, 2020

John Bendel


“Ironically, turnover bouncing back is a good sign for the economy and for trucking.”

That’s what ATA’s chief economist said in a recent ATA news release that reported the turnover rate at big truckload carriers rose 10 percentage points to 92% in the third quarter of 2020. The rate at smaller truckload carriers was 74%.

There is no malice in the statement. A good sign is not the same as a good thing. We all know what he means: increased turnover is related to demand for drivers and reflects a buzzing economy. He’s right.

He’s right about irony, too. While turnover statistics may be indicative of something good, those grotesque figures represent an enormous number of real drivers, living breathing human beings trying hard to earn a living. For the thousands of drivers involved, truckload turnover is more than a statistic. It’s a matter of serious personal consequence.

Turnover of 92% in a fleet of 1,000 drivers means 920 drivers left that fleet for one or more reasons in a year. That reality all by itself should put industry claims of a driver “shortage” to rest. Most of those who left are still CDL drivers, still part of a vast pool of drivers the ATA wants you to believe are in short supply.

More importantly, those industrywide percentages represent literally tens of thousands of disillusioned newbies, most of whom have gone through driver training and indoctrination that took time during which they were not earning money for their families.

According to a 2020 survey by the American Payroll Association, nearly 69% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.

They experience financial consequences if their paychecks are delayed for a week. Ninety-two percent turnover means more borrowing and debt or maybe more hounding by debt collectors for a substantial portion of those 920 drivers and their families.

Even when recruiters are totally honest about the demands of the job and the pay, some people can’t understand what it means to be away from home for weeks at a time or to live in a truck until they actually do it. They can’t really understand the strain of driving for long hours – at least if they’re lucky enough to get the miles – or sometimes to sit idle, bored, and unpaid, if they don’t. They don’t understand that while they may log themselves off-duty, they never actually are. They’re responsible for their truck and everything on it 24 hours a day. Even when they’re not officially on duty, they’re always on call.

Sadly, most of these new drivers quickly learn the truckload business is not for everyone. Only a special group of drivers can take – and sometimes even enjoy – the rigors of the business. For most people, the job is more challenging than they even thought possible.

More than a few of those drivers were probably driving school graduates. Some paid for the schooling out of their own pockets. Others went to carrier-run schools and indebted themselves to at least one year with the company lest they be charged for the course. There are the special pressures for them. They may have to make a difficult choice. Should they stay with a job they hate for a year to avoid having to pay the carrier for their schooling, or should they quit now for the sake of their families and their own wellbeing?

For those who choose to stay, it can be the longest year of their lives.

Those who go, of course, are reflected in those turnover stats. They’re not just out of a job. They’re in debt to their former employer. For all their personal effort to launch a new career and make a new start, they only made their family’s financial situation worse.

It’s easy to dismiss the experienced drivers in the turnover states, those who make up what is called the “churn” – as though job hopping is just a game. It isn’t. Most drivers who quit one truckload job for another do so for serious reason. Maybe they need more money, more miles, or more home time and they hope a different company can provide it. As often as not and despite their hopes, the new company can’t – hence more job hopping.

Like all those newbies who quit in the first few months, experienced driver churn says there is something – probably a lot of things – wrong with the truckload industry as it has been for more than 30 years and still is today.

Too few carriers are even interested to know what they might be. It’s easier to kick up driver pay by a small percentage, congratulate themselves for their generosity, and head back to the golf course.

Driver turnover is an abomination. The truckload industry is like an obese, gluttonous whale complaining there’s not enough krill. LL

Int'l Used Trucks

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.