Trucking -The End Around

webThe story of the driver shortage has been around for decades. In 1988 I could not get a job in my the field of my degree, I got one in trucking. There was a driver shortage. For one of the first times in my life I had choices. Trucking companies came to my driving school and recruited me. I got my CDL from a truck driving school. Then I went on the road with a trainer for the robust wage of $100 per week.

The trainer became a trainer because he got paid for every mile the truck moved. To my knowledge he received no special training to become a trainer. If he was, I sure couldn’t tell. I was his first student. During those 3 weeks on the road with the trainer I backed up once. My training ended when my trainer got so mad at me he threatened to leave me on the road. My offense: I told him that he couldn’t enter a parking lot because the entrance was chained off. He yelled at me that I was a know it all because I went to college. Although, I may have informed him that I did not need to go to college to know that when a parking lot is chained off, don’t go there. The company had to order him to bring me back to the terminal. As far as I knew, I was going to be fired because of my offense. The trainer kept telling me that I would be. They told me that I was lucky. There was a driver shortage, or else I would be out the door.

That was my first job in trucking. The program there was that we got home once every 2 weeks. Then we would get 3 days at home. Every time that I came home an emergency run would come up long before the 3 days. At first, I submitted and left for work. Within 18 months I noticed a few things. Most of the people (12) that I went to driving school with were no longer driving. They had left the industry. We had a seniority board (with no benefits) on the wall of the drivers’ room. On that board with almost 200 drivers, I was in the top 10 for seniority. You noticed a lot of things waiting up to 30 hours for an oil change, for no money.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when they got me back to the shop (about 100 miles from home) after 2 weeks out. After the maintenance was done they sent me back out instead of home. It was an “emergency” they were short drivers and a load “needed” to be delivered. They promised to get me right back home. After my delivery they did not send me straight home. They sent me to a customer in North Carolina for a Friday delivery and then a Sunday pick up to head back towards the house. I asked for layover pay. They refused, saying that I was not laid over since I was under dispatch. My counter was “How many miles are you paying me for under this dispatch?”. They relented and paid me my $25 for the 2 day layover. I decided to look for another driving job.

There were more offers than I could count. When I gave my 2 week notice they changed their tune. What could they do to make me stay? They promised to make me so happy that I wouldn’t quit. It was too late. I had agreed to work for another carrier that was domiciled 30 miles from the house. I would be home every weekend and the maintenance would be done while I was home. The perceived truck driver shortage gave me the confidence to not put up with their treatment. It was leverage.

That leverage gives drivers the ability to say no. We can say no when companies try to harass us to drive when we are tired. We can say no to driving in snow storms. We can refuse to service a customer who detains us and refuses to pay detention. We can say no, if we just want a day off at home. Companies have not begun to pay automatic detention because they want to. They do it because drivers have leverage.

Throughout the years the carriers have proclaimed that we have failed to recruit enough qualified drivers into the industry. I don’t see it that way. I think that they recruit plenty of qualified drivers. The problem is that we don’t keep them. Low pay and unfair treatment has driven qualified drivers out of the business. At least one study says that the average driving career last about 3.2 years. Remember back to my first job. Within 18 months, I was near the top of the seniority board. Now, remember my driving school class. As far as I know within 3 years, I was the only one still driving. Say we had 11 of those 12 drivers last an average of about a year. Then I lasted 26 years. That totals 37 years out of that class of 12. That is about average. One out of 12 from that class made a career out of driving.

A confluence of events is making the perceived driver shortage more real. The economy has picked up. That increases ton mile demand. It also gives some drivers the opportunity for an alternative career. Many drivers like me, came into the industry because an economic slow down reduced our alternatives. The improving economy is a double edged sword when it come to the driver shortage. We have increased enforcement of hours of service regulations. Some regulations have driven many fringe drivers and a few quality drivers out of the profession. These events have given the driver increased leverage. Increased driver leverage equates to increased safety.

Is there a real driver shortage? Or is it a pay and condition driven shortage? I took a lot of economics courses in college. One of the classes taught me to ask a simple question. If you paid drivers $1,000,000.00 per year would you have enough drivers? If the answer is yes, and I believe that it is. You don’t have a driver shortage. You have an economic issue. The average driver of today makes in the neighborhood of $40,000.00 per year. There is a shortage of qualified people willing to do this job at $40,000.00. The market is somewhere between those numbers. The market decides the point where demand meets supply.

Instead there is a movement within trucking to expand the driver supply by lessening the qualifications. One idea is to decrease the driving age. One company is petitioning to let drivers without CDLs drive the trucks without a driver trainer on duty in the passenger seat. Those are temporary solutions to the permanent problem of driver pay and treatment. They are designed to take leverage away from the driver. When you lower driver qualifications you are making the highways more dangerous. When you lessen a driver’s leverage, you are also lessening the drivers’ ability to say no. It is an end around the real problems in the industry. Instead of confronting the real issues it is choosing economics over safety.

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Jeff Clark was born in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, IL. As a kid he delivered the Chicago Tribune, Sun Times and Wall Street Journal in the morning and the Chicago Today in the afternoon. In high school he worked at the local Sears store and at school Jeff ran track and cross country. After High School Mr. Clark went on to get his A.A. in Liberal Arts at the College of Du Page. After graduation, Jeff tried several jobs but ended up in warehousing. He worked as a Teamster Warehouseman and lift truck operator for several years, and after several bouts of layoffs, Jeff started working towards his B.A. Degree in Business Administration with an Accounting Concentration as well as an emphasis on Economics. After graduation, he moved to Wisconsin, and worked as a store manager and eventually bought the video business. He also sidelined working for an Accounting firm, working on tax returns. In 1988 Jeff went to truck driving and began driving truck. In 2001 he bought his first truck and became an owner operator. “I got a job that would pay lumper wages if I unloaded the trailers.” The work required getting in better shape so Jeff joined the local YMCA to strengthen his back and shoulders and eventually he started running. Mr. Clark says that, “Finishing my first marathon gave me the confidence to start writing about the industry.” In the last 10 years Mr. Clark has actively written about the industry while continuing to drive and operate his trucking business. He and others started the “truckin' runners FB group” that has currently over 600 members. Jeff firmly states the following, “I will always be a driver first. I will continue to fight for better working conditions and pay for truckers.”

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