'Outlaws' no more: How a driver shortage transforms big-rig work

Hyungwon Kang/Reuters
An 18-wheeler passes through the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel in Pennsylvania's Somerset County. Better pay and an improving job experience for drivers, including social media connections and fewer miles driven, are changing trucking as the industry faces a worker shortage.
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Moving the nation’s freight is crucial to the economy. It’s also now at the leading edge of a tight United States job market. Industry economist Bob Costello estimates that 1 in 10 big-rig jobs is unfilled. “We’ve never seen it like this,” he says. “Trucking companies are telling us that it is not all about pay. This is about work and lifestyle.” And with the laws of supply and demand as an impetus, the industry is evolving. Paychecks are going up, the job experience is improving, and more women and minorities are being drawn into an occupation often viewed as the domain of white male road jockeys. The pay boost is one big factor drawing people like Terrie Ussery, an African-American woman from Georgia, into truck cabs. But it’s also the changing culture of the road: fewer miles being driven each day, easier-to-drive automatic transmissions, and sometimes more nights spent at home or even bringing pets along for the ride. “We have to create those lifestyles that the rest of America wants,” says Ben Schill, a truck company manager.

Why We Wrote This

Freight trucking has long been economically vital but fraught with hardship. Now a driver shortage is bringing new racial and gender diversity – and a change in on-the-road lifestyles – to the work.

For as long as she can remember, Terrie Ussery of Savannah, Ga. has looked up in awe as the big rigs steam by, barrelling toward the horizon.

But whether she, a black woman, could ever become a king of the road in a trucking industry long dominated by white blue-collar men has just as long been the question.

On July 24, Ms. Ussery answered it herself when she took the commercial driver license test at Savannah Tech’s Effingham Campus here in Rincon.

Why We Wrote This

Freight trucking has long been economically vital but fraught with hardship. Now a driver shortage is bringing new racial and gender diversity – and a change in on-the-road lifestyles – to the work.

As she waited her turn for the road test, Ussery found herself on the cusp of a life-changing moment – potentially graduating to the cab of a “reefer truck” that brings fresh food to the people.

Her decision to become a truck driver is not just a lifelong dream, but also makes her part of trend. Trucking firms are desperate to add more women and minority drivers, who make up a fraction of the fleet, to help meet a shortage of drivers that’s publicized on roadside billboards across the nation.

“I’ve had a lot of money problems, and I thank God for my family – and, yeah, my landlord – for being forgiving,” she says. “Now I’m going to finally be able to pay them back.”

Like many recruits, Ussery has been lured into the driver’s seat by both rising pay and an improving job experience – including social media connections, fewer miles, more nights at home, and sometimes even pets as highway companions. Relatively easy-to-drive automatic transmissions are now employed by half the US fleet.

Such lifestyle improvements are making the job safer, more comfortable, and less lonely. They’re beginning to transform the culture of a fragmented, low-margin industry where truckers have felt more like serfs than kings.

Trucking companies are now “on their knees, begging” graduates, says Kevin Terrell, one of Ussery’s classmates. He says another classmate just turned his nose up at a $10,000 signing bonus. Relatively cushy trucking gigs that pay $68,000 a year are going unfilled.

With 51,000 missing drivers out of an estimated 500,000 long-haulers, “We’ve never seen it like this; it is the worst,” says Bob Costello, chief economist for American Trucking Associations, in Arlington, Va. “Trucking companies are telling us that it is not all about pay. This is about work and lifestyle.”

The industry found a place in American hearts and imaginations in the 1970s and ’80s with the citizens-band radio craze and film or TV dramas like “B.J. and the Bear,” but soon truckers were stereotyped as outcasts and misfits.

And the challenges of the profession are real. Health issues are prevalent. Due to accidents, long-hauling is far more dangerous than police work. And relationships can suffer. Coupled with rising demand for freight hauling, all this helps explain the current trucker shortage.

The dynamic is already hitting the wider economy, given that truckers haul 70 percent of America’s freight by value. Unless pay and perks rise high enough, the shortage may only grow. Yet as trucking firms boost their rates, the result is higher consumer prices being charged by Amazon and Tyson Foods, among others.

Trucking companies “need workers, they need bodies, and they need to make this a career that’s attractive to people, and they’re doing everything they can to do it,” says Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group in Fairfield, N.J. “Higher wages, higher benefits, free weekends – they are competing against everybody else for workers when the supply of available workers in the ninth year of economic expansion is much lower” than in past cycles.

To be sure, truck driving has always been a “hard way to make an easy living,” says veteran Savannah Tech instructor Tom Amacher. That remains true even now.

And technology is a wild card. Some futurists say the era of driverless vehicles is just around the corner, with the implication that the trucker shortage could change to a trucker glut. But it’s possible that technology will change the human role, rather than replacing it. Industry officials note how trains and planes moved to autopilot technology, yet those conveyances are still manned by humans.

For now at least, potential paradigm shifts are being eclipsed by subtler moves by trucking companies. A typical trucker’s daily miles are down from 800 in 2000 to 500 now, in part due to a 2012 law that limits drive times before mandatory 10-hour breaks. Driver-assist technologies, including onboard radar, are already becoming commonplace. Yet safety has slipped as trucking has boomed, propelled by a strong economy and the rise of e-commerce. The number of fatal large-truck crashes rose by 13 percent between 2010 and 2016, to 12 fatal wrecks per million people, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Situated in an air-conditioned trailer on a hot dirt lot, Ace Drayage employs 50 drivers, pulling containers filled with everything from school supplies to barbecue smokers – headed to Walmart and Home Depot. Down the road is the Port of Savannah, where container trade rose by 13.6 percent in the first five months of 2018, compared to the same period a year earlier. Ace is a small company in the big picture, but indicative of the market forces. A few months ago, the firm raised rates for the first time in years after drivers started balking at trips.

The change was overdue. “It has been a good thing for us, because we’ve stayed busy and our drivers are getting paid well and are happy with what they’re doing,” says owner Stephanie Wagner.

Paper Transport, Inc., a 700-trucker firm headquartered outside Green Bay, Wis., offers free ride-alongs for friends and partners as well as what has become a key draw – pet-welcoming cabs. The company says pets help break up the stress and loneliness of the road.

What is more, every new driver receives a Galaxy tablet loaded with social media apps, some geared toward truckers, others toward friends.

“The biggest impact is lifestyle change,” says Ben Schill, PTI’s vice president. “Pay is going to be pushing $50,000 to $60,000 a year, but we have to create those lifestyles that the rest of America wants. Truck drivers are the same as the rest of us.”

Where three years ago “home-daily” routes were off-limits to rookies, they are now part of nearly every recruiting package, he says.

When Mr. Amacher, the Savannah Tech instructor, first got into the business, truckers seemed a different breed. Where once they were romanticized as hard-living highway jockeys, today the word “outlaw” is practically outlawed, he laughs.

As director of the program, Amacher says he is doing his part to increase the trucker pool by adding classes and stepping up the classwork pace. Women and minorities made up the bulk of students at Monday’s driving final test here in Rincon.

He describes one woman who, after earning her commercial driver’s license plus hazardous-materials certification, exemplifies the industry’s shifting dynamics.

“Here’s this little bitty woman driving this great big truck, pulling a great old chemical tanker,” he says. “So if someone tells me a woman can’t do it, I’m going to tell them they are full of it.”

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