Welcome to the Spotlight Truck Drivers

Pay $200,000+ for a four-year college degree to get a $100,000 job (if you get an engineering or other high-paying degree) or pay $4,500 for a 12-week training program to get a $110,000 job?

Put differently, do you want to be an engineer or a Walmart truck driver?

There was a lot of buzz last week about Walmart raising the starting salary of its private fleet drivers from an average of $87,000 to between $95,000 and $110,000. The company also launched “the first-ever Walmart Private Fleet Development Program. Over the course of a 12-week program, supply chain associates in the Dallas, Texas, and Dover, Delaware, areas earned their commercial driver’s license (CDL) and became full-fledged Private Fleet Walmart drivers.”

Of course, there is a big difference between being a truck driver for a private fleet — especially for Walmart, which offers the most coveted jobs in the industry — and being an owner-operator truck driver competing for freight in the open market. According to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for heavy-truck and tractor-trailer drivers was $47,130 in 2020.

Also last week, the White House released a statement highlighting the actions the Biden Administration has taken to expand and improve trucking jobs. First, the announcement highlights several long-standing issues facing the industry:

Turnover in trucking routinely averages 90 percent for some carriers and drivers spend about 40 percent of their workday waiting to load and unload goods –  hours that are typically unpaid. Many truckers are not directly employed and operate as independent small businesses, bearing the burden of leasing, gas, insurance, and maintenance costs themselves. These financial burdens cause many to leave the profession. Trucking also draws on an older, heavily male workforce — the median age is four years higher than the overall workforce and almost 90 percent of the industry is men — which adds to its recruiting challenges.

The announcement then highlights some of the actions taken to expand and improve trucking jobs: cutting red-tape in Commercial Driver’s licensing; scaling Registered Apprenticeships in trucking to improve retention; and helping connect veterans to trucking careers.

Truck drivers and the industry were also featured on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” in an episode that highlights some of the issues mentioned above and other crap over-the-road truck drivers have to deal with.

Saturday Night Live also did a sketch this weekend on truck drivers, but as is typical for the show, it relied heavily on stereotypes about truck drivers to get some laughs (e.g., they all listen to country music and urinate in Big Gulp cups). I’m guessing very few truck drivers found it funny.

Finally, in an article published by the Wall Street Journal yesterday (“Driving Into Danger, Ukrainian Truckers Are Delivering Food, Cargo and Aid”), Paul Berger writes:

Serhiy Berestenko climbed into a truck outside a warehouse in Kyiv one day last week bound for Dnipro, about 300 miles to the southeast, carrying medical supplies to hospitals close to the front lines of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“There are two main problems,” Mr. Berestenko said in a telephone interview. “The first problem is you don’t know if you will reach your destination. And the second problem is you do not know in what condition you will return.”

Yeah, driving for Walmart (and a few other A-list private fleets) is a very good gig, if you can get it. Overall, however, it isn’t easy being an over-the-road truck driver and the pay isn’t great either, especially when you factor in all the waiting and other hassles of the job. 

This brings me to the age-old argument: Is there a diver shortage problem or is it really a driver pay and retention problem? I’ve written about this question many times over the years:

The reality is that it’s not one or the other; it’s both. 

Driver detention is not just a function of wages and benefits, but job satisfaction too. This is where minimizing or eliminating driver detention comes into play, and shippers have a big role to play here. Helping carriers, especially owner-operators, find their next load more quickly and efficiently is also important, and this is where technology, such as digital freight matching solutions and mobile apps, is having an impact.

Trucking, however, cannot escape the broader labor shortage problem facing the United States and many other countries too. As highlighted in a recent Talking Logistics episode with Chris Jones from Descartes (“The Labor Shortage Problem: Why It’s Bigger Than You Think And How To Address It”):

Population growth, for example, has steadily declined since the 1970s across the world. In several leading economies, including the United States, Korea and Japan, growth is, in fact, negative. A sustainable replacement rate is 2.1, meaning every adult couple must raise an average of 2.1 children to maintain a steady population. In the United States, however, the replacement rate is only 1.7, and has been below the 2.1 rate (and declining) for over 50 years. Other Western economies are the same or worse. Even China and India have seen significant declines in their population growth rates.

When you add in the surge in Baby Boomer retirements in recent years, a group that has driven the U.S. labor force over the past 50 years, it becomes clear that the decline in labor availability is a much bigger problem over the long term than the temporary displacements from the pandemic.

Simply put, in the years and decades ahead, there will be fewer and fewer young people available to fill all job openings — not just in trucking, but also warehousing, manufacturing, and everything else. This is one of the main reasons why companies are increasing their investments in warehouse automation, driverless trucks, and software robots — aka Robotic Process Automation (see “Robots In The Warehouse: A Question Of When”).

Oh, I almost forgot, truck drivers were also featured in The Onion last week (“Buttigieg Brushes Up On Honking For Upcoming Talks With Nation’s Big Rigs”). Here’s an excerpt: “His lips flaring as he forced the loud blasts out of his lungs, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg reportedly brushed up on his honking Thursday in preparation for an important conference with the nation’s big rigs.”

Welcome to the spotlight truck drivers.