Exposing the Driver Shortage Myth

San Mateo, California

If big trucking has its way, taxpayers will feel something worse than government in their back pocket. Big trucking will have its hand in the front pocket — squeezing.

Beware of the campaign launched by the American Trucking Association last week. A white paper detailing projections for a driver shortage that they predict will reach 250,000 drivers in a decade, largely blaming retiring company drivers and owner operators.

Exposing the Driver Shortage Myth

A private pilot, MacGyver was thrilled by the unsanctioned parking he found in Gander, Newfoundland at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum. Big and empty, Canada has a ridiculous shortage of big truck parking. The sanctioned parking, we discovered the next morning, is on the west side of Gander, at Goose’s restaurant at the Irving fuel stop. It, we’re told, takes up to 50 trucks. But I don’t know where. We left a donation for our overnight stay.

We have come to see this annual story, the driver shortage, as more than a myth. If there is a driver shortage, it is an industry-designed strategy to flatten wages, provide minimal working conditions and burrow a tunnel into the taxpayer’s wallet. It’s a drive for corporate welfare and highway robbery.

The federal government has shoveled billions of dollars into trucking companies to provide training programs and still the industry complains of a driver shortage.

There is corporate double dipping. Companies get taxpayer money to train drivers and then sometimes bill the drivers for some of that training. We don’t know if Schneider National received any taxpayer funds for our training, but we paid them back a portion of the training cost and then they slammed my credit score in the name of their corporate efficiency, which revealed how they really feel about drivers.

If government believes there is a looming driver shortage — and there should be because working conditions are abysmal and government regulation is to blame for some of that — taxpayer money is better spent on providing the basics, the infrastructure, such as more safe, sanitary parking and reviewing wrongheaded Hours of Service regulations that will be in effect in 2013.

In this industry, drivers are paid to drive. They are only paid when they drive, when the wheels ain’t turnin’, we ain’t earnin’. A company doesn’t care if a driver only drives 1,700 miles a week — a solo driver needs about 2,500 weekly miles to earn what is considered a living wage in America — because the driver is not paid when sitting, waiting to be dispatched. And few drivers are paid detention time to sit at a dock waiting to be loaded or unloaded, which steals their legal working hours from driving.

So drivers are paid little, they don’t get enough miles, they lose their hours to drive, they are not making enough money to support themselves. In a few months they leave the industry and not because they don’t like the work. Worrisome for all motorists and regulators, is that drivers don’t stay long enough to become experienced, safe drivers. Safety is compromised by turnover.

The big fleet has had a cheap driver for a few months and then it goes onto another cheap driver, wages rarely rise above entrance level and benefits remain minimal. A bonus: if a driver crashes, and leaves, he is off the books.

It didn’t take us long to realize — about three months, once the terror of driving a rocket wore off — that the drivers are simply a replaceable commodity, like an oil filter, to most big fleets, despite their protestations to the contrary.

This is an unusual industry in that it depends on the little people, the drivers, making good decisions everyday, showing up on time to pick up and deliver. But no one, not regulators, not politicians and certainly not the industry want to actually develop a strong, safe driver base because, well, that costs money and we know how corporations feel about spending their own money. It’s not good for the bottom line. It’s much preferable in their world to spend millions on lobbyists to buy favorable regulation and a way into the taxpayer’s wallet.

OOIDA, the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, calls it a retention problem, not a driver shortage. They say the industry has an over 100% turnover per year, which means there are two people for each driver seat every year.

In almost five years, talking to drivers and owner operators on the road and at the four different carriers we’ve been through we believe OOIDA is correct. It will get worse. It has a bearing on safety. It will cost taxpayers money, and as is the case in America’s current corporatocracy, taxpayers will be the losers if drivers don’t make their voices heard as professional drivers, as motorists and as taxpayers.

Exposing the Driver Shortage Myth

Gander’s North Atlantic Aviation Museum honors its short but fascinating history as a pivotal location to the early transatlantic air crossings. A refueling stop that became familiar with the rich and famous. Luckily for us, it has enough room in its parking lot after hours for a big truck to stop and let the drivers sleep safely.

Trucking has designed an ingenious system to default to the driver. Sometimes I feel like God the Almighty and omniscient because everything is blamed on the driver.

If you’re late, it’s your fault. If there are no directions, it’s your fault. If you take a wrong turn because there is no street sign or you can’t see the sign because it is behind ten other signs, it’s your fault. If you can’t find a place to shutdown for your 10 hour break, it’s your fault. If you make an addition mistake on your log, it’s your fault. If the company won’t fix a trailer and makes you take it anyway and you get a ticket, it’s your fault.

And because the driver is the only person in the whole chain of trucking that suffers any immediate or real consequences, no one cares; not the trucking company, not the dispatcher, not the shipper, nor the consignee, not the DOT and as is becoming more apparent every day, not the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. No one. It’s not their problem, it’s our problem.

The regulator, the FMCSA, has let us down greatly. Yes, safety is paramount, but drivers need to earn money to feed themselves, their families, and pay their taxes. The prevailing attitude is that drivers and owner operators are running a charity, they can work for free.

Good regulation takes and gives to all parties equally, we all get something, we all lose something. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in giving his marching orders to Anne Ferro, the Regulator-in-Chief at FMCSA, has failed drivers greatly, and ultimately the public.

Drivers are talked about and treated like idiots. You show me a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist who can keep track of the regulations we do from the federal government to the 49 states in the U.S. along with 10 provinces and three territories in Canada. One jurisdiction says the kingpin setting is one place, another jurisdiction measures a wide single differently. The rule book is two-inches-thick of legalese and still, DOT officers describe issues as “gray” areas.

This is INTER-state commerce. The national economy is controlled by Department of Transport fiefdoms. States cannot get consistent OPEN/CLOSED signs at the Weigh Stations. (See Washington). Signs are incomprehensible, lighting is non-existent, and safe, sanitary parking facilities are disappearing.

Let’s count the “whys” drivers will leave the industry in droves in the next few years, if the situation stays at it is.

1. Pay is generally terrible. Drivers get entry level wages yet carry huge responsibility with life-and-death consequences. In this industry, you cannot count on the amount of your next paycheck from week to week.

Big fleets fail to consider strategies that will improve their bottom line and increase driver pay, such as limiting trucks and turning over a large share of the fuel savings to drivers. Instead, they reduce the speeds on the truck, reducing pay, a lower speed means fewer miles and pocket all the savings.

2. While owner operators are retiring, the ones left behind are seeing stagnant rates and are being attacked by creeping costs. Financially negligent states are raising tolls and mileage taxes to pay for everything but roads, and are increasingly anxious to turn over taxpayer assets, roadways to private companies. Yes, you Ohio.

3. Road conditions are terrible, despite the enormous amount of resurfacing work. The infrastructure is failing. See www.saveourbridges.com.

4. EOBRs, Electronic OnBoard Recorders, a fleet management tool, and profit center for companies like Qualcomm and carriers like Landstar, are being mandated in the name of safety. However, they will not improve safety, but will improve the bottom line for corporate interests and lead to increased harassment of drivers.

5. Every year there are fewer places to park. Truck stops are eliminating 10 and 20 spots in locations to install natural gas pumps. This is happening at the Flying J in Houston, Texas where there is a shortage of truck parking and Gretna, Nebraska. I understand that it is their right and duty to use their assets to create profit, however this eliminates safe, sanitary parking at a time when states are happy to take my road taxes and close rest areas.

Exposing the Driver Shortage Myth

The museum covers the airport’s history from 1935 to 2001 when after the attack on the World Trade Center planes to the US were grounded in Gander, Newfoundland. The community provided support, food, and clothing to hundreds of stranded Americans until they were able to return home.

Think how it feels to wonder every day, if there will be a place to park tonight to meet federal regulations of a 10-hour shutdown after driving 11 hours.

Then there are plenty of other issues. It’s a difficult life on the road and it’s hard to get home when you want. Some carriers don’t want to repair trailers when the driver thinks it needs tires or brakes. This should slowly be ending as now carriers are responsible for equipment failure tickets, but drivers continue to have them on their record longer.

Here’s what’s good about trucking. It can be a good, long-term job for returning war veterans, women, minorities and people over 50. There is no corporate discrimination, your driving record, not your fashion sense or your facelift speaks for you. If you’re safe, you can get a job.

But training is not a taxpayer responsibility. This is the new corporate boondogle, throw training costs back onto the taxpayer. As taxpayers, we already pay for the roads, the infrastructure and basic education. Industry must pay for its own needs-specific training. The check and balance in the system is that if they train someone who then leaves, well, it’s more than just a possibility that the person left due to lousy pay or poor employment conditions. And that is up to the company to fix at its own cost.

We also have to realize that if we want our quality of life to continue in America, $12 an hour for a skilled worker is NOTHING because $25,000 a year does not support a family. It barely supports one person anywhere in this country and it definitely doesn’t support the ability to raise the NEXT generation of skilled workers.

The drumbeat of the driver shortage will grow stronger in the months ahead. When you see anything from the ATA think bankers, oil companies, medical insurance — all the giant industries that created associations to force their issues and further their message.

OOIDA should have 3 million members, the number of drivers on the road. It is the only group which speaks for drivers, both owner operators and company drivers. The membership dues are cheap — the equivalent of a carton of cigarettes, six six-packs of good beer, dinner for four at Applebee’s, lunch for two at Whole Foods — whatever your standard of financial measurement. OOIDA offers benefits, such as insurance, and their people are ready to answer questions on regulations and compliance. They once gave us an answer that saved us a high paying load. One we thought we had to give up based on our understanding of a regulation.

Drivers complain they don’t like all of OOIDA’s positions. I don’t either. But no organization will hit the mark for everyone all the time. OOIDA excels at fighting on behalf of drivers. We have big issues are on the table and our livlihoods depend on having a voice at that table.

Join OOIDA today. Put Capitol Hill 202-224-3121 on your speed dial. Your elected officials have just received another term of socialist-style, taxpayer-funded Cadillac health care and pension benefits. Make them earn those benefits. Make them work for you. Let them know your issues.

6 thoughts on “Exposing the Driver Shortage Myth

  1. Marlaina, this is an excellent post. You can't keep outdoing yourself like this, who knows where it will lead? OOIDA has historically only increased its membership by 10 percent a year or so. This combined with people retiring, leaving, or just leaving OOIDA has created a few problems. OOIDA does what it can, but they are in need of some new thinking I believe, when it comes marketing to new members. Their web presence is elementary at best and this is holding them back. They have failed to place billboards in locations that produce results and the message on the billboard needs to be revamped as well. As a person who lives and breathes trucking, I rarely see anyone talking about OOIDA anymore or anywhere. With 14 million CDL holders and 3 million OTR CDL holders, OOIDA only having 150K members is severely lacking. Having said that, they are the dominating force for truckers so just imagine what 1 million members could accomplish?I tell people to join and I try to work it into the conversation whenever I can.


  2. yes,another great post…if there truely was a shortage, wages/rates, benefits, would be rising and doing so very fast to attract new blood for the industry…with things the way they are, why would this industry be attractive at all to young people??


  3. Another great post! In the past years I've done tax returns for two or three people that have got bit by the owner operator advertising. After a year on the road they really didn't make much more than they did driving dump trucks for local construction companies and having the Winter off. I have to reread you post a few times, but in the last two or three years two 'Driver Training Schools' have opened up in the little area of CT where I live. Their radio and newspaper ads stress the needs for umpteen drivers needed in the next decade like you wrote above. Safe driving.


  4. We've been on back-to-back team loads, so I haven't had much time to respond, Eddie, ELH and Gil.It's difficult to write bouncing along in the truck. The argument that CEOs use to justify their gigantic pay packs — by the way, I just read that the CEO of Wal-Mart in 2010 earned more in one HOUR than a full-time employee earns in one YEAR — is that good CEOs are hard to find. It's supply and demand, not much supply, big demand.My question is: Why does this tried and true capitalist principle not apply to truck drivers. If good drivers are hard to find and hard to keep, shouldn't the first solution be better pay and better benefits. I throw that out to the shippers and carriers.


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