The ATA says driver churn is good for you

April 7, 2022

John Bendel

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Hey, driver, you’ve never had it so good! You’re living the American dream!

Don’t believe me? No less an authority than the American Trucking Associations says so in a recent blog called “The Truth About Trucking Turnover.”

In case you haven’t read it, you’ll be pleased to learn that driver turnover is a good thing. You can hop from job to job to increase your salary and earn sign-on bonuses. According to ATA, driver turnover of 90% is mostly churn, drivers switching carriers. It’s a sign of opportunity!

“In many respects, high turnover is an indicator of driver empowerment,” the blog reads. “When the labor market tightens, drivers find themselves in the driver’s seat (pardon the pun), putting millions of hard-working men and women in control of their own destiny in ways they haven’t been in years, if ever.”

All you drivers are now controlling the hell out of your destinies! And maybe for the first time ever! Does it get any better?

 

ATA says driver churn is good for you
ATA included this graphic in its blog post “The Truth About Trucking Turnover.”

 

It’s baloney, of course. All of it.

“The Truth About Trucking Turnover” is anything but. And it’s kind of sad. While I’m sure its authors – its byline is “ATA staff” – truly see things that way, what they’ve written reflects something other than the real world of trucking most drivers live in. It’s wrong in tone and in fact.

Sure, changing jobs can improve a driver’s earnings and quality of life, but more often than not it’s not by much. In any case, it comes at a cost. Change carriers, and you have to learn about the new company, about its customers, its routes, its policies, and all its all-important quirks. That’s a lot to learn, and the real learning often begins only after unpaid, mind-numbing driver orientation sessions.

Even when a recruiter is telling the absolute truth, it is always the truth as he or she knows it, not necessarily as you’re going to live it. It may not be the whole truth at that. Sometimes, the new job is more demanding than the one left behind. Despite an increase in pay or miles, the conditions may be worse and management even harder to deal with. You don’t really know what you’ve gotten into until the first operational glitch, settlement question, or special request to get back home.

Changing carriers is always a gamble, something to be weighed carefully, especially when it involves a family’s livelihood. Heavy job-hoppers do bounce around within the industry, but for most drivers, changing jobs is a big deal.

I’m happy for every driver who takes a chance on a different fleet and it turns out well. That’s a good thing. But it happens less often than “The Truth About Trucking Turnover” implies.

To a sorry degree, driver churn is a measure of unhappiness. Churn is less an indicator of driver empowerment than it is of driver desperation.

We’re not talking about an empowered workforce so much as a sick industry.

But I guess ATA believes it’s better to make churn look good than to admit people by the thousands enter the industry, get a taste of the life and the pay, and then get out as soon as they can.

“While retirements and exits account for a small percentage of turnover, by and large that is not what this figure is counting,” the authors say.

A small percentage? I don’t believe it. The secretary of the DOT said 300,000 people leave the industry every year, and I doubt that figure is high enough. But I can’t be sure because I don’t have access to accurate figures. Only carriers have those numbers, and they don’t always share them – maybe not even with the ATA.

For starters, how many drivers quit each year? How many of that number were employed for less than a year? Less than six months? How many stayed long enough to collect a sign-on bonus and then took off?

More to the point here, how many of those drivers moved to other driving jobs? And how do carriers or the ATA know if a driver is leaving one carrier for another or leaving the industry altogether?

If there are believable explanations and legitimate numbers, I’d love to know them. Safety regulators should definitely know them.

Safety regulators should know a few things they don’t. Lack of turnover data is an unacknowledged problem at least in part because it’s easier for regulators to deal with driver behavior than company policies and cultures. But given the enormous scope of driver turnover, regulators should be investigating its safety impact. Indeed, driver turnover should be part of every fleet’s safety profile – whether that turnover is churn or not.

I said “The Truth About Trucking Turnover” was sad. It’s sad that it appears on the website of a national trucking organization of ATA’s stature. That means it has probably been read and accepted at face value by at least some journalists, Congress people, and policy makers. It’s very sad that the ATA has represented to them that driver churn is some kind of a good thing.

It isn’t. LL

WW Williams

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.