Trucker Shortage and Turnover Mean Higher Pay for Those Who Remain

Long hours, regulation, and the threat of automation continue to hit the trucking industry, but pay is rising.

In the face of a nationwide shortage of truckers, shipping companies have begun increasing pay, industry sources such as Transport Topics show. The American Trucking Associations finds that truckload drivers working national, irregular routes averaged $53,000 in 2017, a rise of $7,000, from 2013, while private fleet drivers earned more than $86,000, up $13,000 in four years.

The ATA saw a shortage of 50,000 over-the-road truck drivers in 2017, and predicted the number could grow to 175,000 by 2026. The trade paper FreightWaves notes that it's not uncommon for new drivers to quit within the year due to long hours and pay that's still historically low. 

"Drivers are moving out to work in factories or construction sites as those jobs pay them more than what they earn in the trucking industry, and would also let them get home every night," it explains. 

Other issues are also making it tough on truckers. Bloomberg notes that, beginning this month, authorities have begun using electronic logging devices to enforce a two-year-old rule that truck drivers stay on the road no longer than 11 hours before resting for the next 10. Some truckers have complained that the devices, meant for safety, cut pay and add to their regulatory burden. 

The relentless march toward autonomous vehicles is another factor discouraging would-be drivers. Volvo, Tesla, and others are aggressively testing self-driving work trucks. Why spend time and money training for a career that might be taken over by machines in the next few years? 

The biggest factor, though, still seems to be pay. The average trucker today (including those driving smaller loads and local routes) only makes $41,000 a year, FreightWaves notes. 

This is in stark contrast to the industry's glory days in the 1970s and early 1980s when films like "Convoy," "Breaker! Breaker!" and the "Smokey and the Bandit" series romanticized life on the road. 

The trade paper Overdrive noted that a truck driver's average pay was over $38,600 in 1980. That would work out to $116,000 annually today if wages had kept pace with inflation.