Breaking Down Barriers to the Truck Driver Shortage

The Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) states that the United States is headed for a truck driver shortage of 200,000 to 400,000 drivers within the next couple of years.Yet as of August 31, 2006, the Commercial Driver’s License Information System (CDLIS) had 12.9 million CDL driver records, growing at an average rate of nearly 40,000 new CDL licenses per month.Out of these, an estimated 50% are just CDL holders, not using their license within a truck driving employment position.

Although this is a fabricated “crisis”, the headline continues to gain attention by major news outlets. There has never been a truck driver shortage in the United States and to fully understand the reasons for this so-called crisis, one must look at several aspects relating to the truck transportation industry.

The fear mongering used by the trucking industry to induce news coverage of a truck driver shortage is a tactic that has been used for decades. The most recent term, “qualified driver shortage,” has come about due to the implementation of the Compliance, Safety, and Accountability Program (CSA). Because of this program, one could reason that there is a shortage of qualified truck drivers, but only because of further regulations being implemented upon the industry.

Motor carriers are now looking for the “perfect” CDL driver who has zero blemishes on their CSA/PSP scores since the CSA program now holds both driver and carrier responsible and liable for safety issues. In the past, only the driver was held responsible for safety violations, even if the violation was the direct fault of the carrier such as a problem with the truck or trailer where the carrier procrastinated in having the problem repaired.

Because of so many new regulations hitting the industry, along with the political maneuvering between the industry and safety groups, many drivers are leaving the vocation and new would-be drivers are avoiding it for several reasons.

With an impending 200,000 to 400,000 shortage of CDL drivers, why are so many recession-worn, out of work employees failing to enter a career in professional truck driving? As drivers face stricter governmental safety regulations and a higher demand by carriers for professionalism, the wages for the CDL driver remains low. Truck driver wages have virtually remained the same for at least thirty years. An ad for hiring drivers in 1978 showed a starting pay rate of.36 cents per mile which is still close to the average pay today, in 2012, thirty-four years later.

Along with the stagnate truck driver wages and the CSA, they also face other possible mandates such as: EOBR’s, sleep apnea testing, BMI maximum, little or no detention time pay, anti-idling laws, higher fuel prices, attitude from law enforcement and the general public, lack of APU’s for safety comfort, stricter hours of service rules, forced dispatch, retaliation from the carrier via the DAC report, the starving out process, lack of adequate home time and 70 hour work weeks.

Due to a constant influx of regulations, many are seeing professional truck driving not being worth the effort. Perhaps the major cause for this is the fact that truck drivers are considered as “unskilled labor” by the U.S. Department of State and the Wage and Hour Division.

Classifying working adults as “unskilled labor” has to do with global economics, as currently 70% of American workers fall within this classification. By classifying workers as “unskilled,” pay wages are kept at minimum which obviously is a big plus for the truck transportation industry that is the largest sector of private industry in North America.

Professional truck drivers are expected to work 70 hours per week and try to run as many miles as possible at a cents-per-mile basis. The standard mileage per week is established at 2500 miles, which for many drivers are still not yet attainable. A new driver to the industry can drive 2500 miles per week at.27 cents per mile and gross a weekly pay check of $675.00 for a so-called 70 hours of work. This figures to be $9.64 per hour gross pay. A veteran driver at 2500 miles per week at a rate of.36 cents per mile, 70 hour work week will gross $900 for the week, averaging $12.86 per hour gross.

Should the motor carrier begin the “starving out” process against the driver and only give them 1800 miles for the week as an example, the gross weekly hourly rate falls to $6.94 per hour and $9.26 per hour respectively. Add to the equation the living out on the road for weeks, months at a time, sleeping in adverse weather conditions without an APU, cost of meals out, isolation from friends and family, contending with strict DOT regulations and risk of CSA violations… a new driver would have to wonder why they would go through all of this for what often times, will lead to an hourly pay scale that is below the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Furthermore, why would a veteran truck driver adhere to such a lifestyle at such a low pay scale?

The motor carrier operating their own CDL training programs, largely the ones I call the “starter companies,” receive government subsidies for training new hires. These subsidies can range from several thousand dollars to as high as $50,000 to $222,000 such as the Commercial Motor Vehicle Operator Training Grants, for example. My last research showed there to be about 16 such programs offered to these CDL training facilities.

The training school motor carrier can actually make more money by constantly turning over drivers than working to retain them. Newer drivers hired at a much lower cents-per-mile rate can be used as a form of cheap labor, while starving out the more experienced driver who commands a higher pay scale while the constant CDL training program continues to bring in the governmental subsidies.

Recent CDL truck driving school graduates are expected to come out being safe and productive professional drivers and they expect to stay within the industry, yet currently there is a 200% turnover rate among first year CDL graduates. Often within their first year of professional truck driving, they end up disillusioned, financially broke and even sometimes, destitute.

If the U. S. trucking industry really was facing a truck driver shortage, then can anyone in the industry explain to me why this happens? A “shortage” of workers of any kind, would logically lead to steps that would end the shortage, yet drivers are still facing this type of ending to their “career” and have been for decades.

With the 200% turnover rate among recent CDL graduates, why are they not staying within the driving career after spending 3-4 weeks in CDL training and going in debt for several thousands of dollars? Furthermore, why are veteran drivers, with years of experience and millions of safe miles, leaving the industry? The answers to these questions are also the steps that could be taken by the industry in order to put an end to this so-called and fabricated crisis called the “driver shortage.”

Step 1: Honesty

Motor carriers and their recruiters need to deal in honesty toward the driver when it comes to factual expectations for a long-haul truck driving career. Too many ads which advertise $50,000 to $60,000 per year income are used to reel-in new hires and sway experienced drivers to change carriers. Large sign-on bonuses that are seldom issued to drivers because the carrier knows that they will probably leave employment before the bonus is due, is another example of false enticement. Promising a higher cents-per-mile rate and 2500 miles per week and only giving the driver 1800 miles per week, using the excuse, “Well freight is slow,” is another example.

I once went to work for a carrier that I told them that I would like to have at least 2800 miles per week. They told me that it would be more like 2000 miles per week. Everything they told me was exactly the way it was and knowing what to expect before I went to work for them, they turned out to be one of the best carriers that I ever hired on with. Instead of using false information in order to lure in potential drivers, tell them the truthful reality of what your carrier can offer them as an employee and discontinue the practice of dishonesty and deceit and then actually provide to the driver what you say you will.

Step 2: Transparency

Business transparency relates to operating in such a way that others can easily see what practices are being performed. It implies openness, communication and accountability from the carrier to the driver, closely related to honesty. For example, an honest and accountable motor carrier will provide all information to the driver who may be considering entering into a company truck lease purchase option. No rushing through, “sign on the dotted line” scheme, but open communication between leaser and lessee.

Transparency leads to the removing of all barriers between company and driver, which in return, incorporates the feeling of trust where as the driver will feel more like a part of the team and not just a number. By being transparent and openly communicate and holding the company responsible for its own actions, the driver can make a clear and definite decision as it relates to his or her livelihood. By doing this, the new driver will not see the company as just another job, but as a place to retain their employment and view the company as a solid career choice.

Step 3: Establish CDL Training Standards

Although the FMCSA is responsible for regulating the safety operational standards within the trucking industry, the major flaw in the system is the absence of any set CDL truck driving training standards. CDL graduates with as little as three to six months OTR experience are being placed in driver-trainer positions. Because of the demands of the job, driver-trainers are sleeping while the new hire trainee is driving through technical obstacles such as mountain terrain, adverse weather conditions and high-traffic metropolitan areas.

The driver-trainer is not to be blamed, but the system itself. The trainer can not logically be expected to stay awake 24/7 while training a new CDL graduate, yet they are expected to abide by the same HOS rules as the solo driver.

There are many CDL mills across the country that will take the student’s money, rush them through the CDL training process and push them into one of the starter companies that will push them into a company lease purchase plan, while fully understanding the lack of driving skill that the student currently possesses. When the trainee has an accident, everyone looks the other way, blaming the recent CDL graduate and blackballing them from ever driving again by placing the mark on their DAC report. All they ever wanted to do was to learn a new skill and look forward to their new driving career.

CDL training standards must be established, not just for new students, but for driver-trainers as well. A certified course that even experienced drivers who are willing to take on the important and serious challenge of truck driver training, can adhere to and to make certain that they have the proper people skills to hold a training position. This should be true for trainees as well since many driver-trainers can face retaliation from the student.

The truck driver training schools that continue to churn out new drivers, regardless of their ability to find a job after completion, need to face stricter CDL training guidelines or be shut down by the FMCSA or other regulatory body. The improper training that continues, with no set governmental CDL training standards, along with the subsidies that most starter company training schools receive that continues the constant turning over of drivers, must be taken seriously by the industry if they truly are desiring a safer operational standard.

Tougher safety regulations, low pay and direct actions by the majority of motor carriers, are all the factual reasons behind the fabricated truck driver shortage. The industry itself created the shortage, they continue to create the shortage and only they can stop it.

Aubrey Allen Smith is a 35 year veteran of the trucking industry with four million safe miles. He is host of the online radio show, Truth About Trucking “LIVE” and founder of the annual Truck Driver Social Media Convention.

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