September 29, 2016


The oft-discussed shortage of American truck drivers is not likely to be resolved anytime soon if results of a new analysis of the industry’s hiring success numbers are accurate.

A third of drivers hired today quit within 90 days of signing on, and half will be gone within 180 days of starting their truck driving careers, according to an analysis of 24,000 drivers employed at dozens of carriers.

At that rate, assuming it accurately extends across the entire industry, U.S. trucking firms would have to hire well more than 100,000 drivers to fill the currently estimated 48,000 openings in the industry plus the positions of veteran drivers who will be retiring or making career transitions out of the driver’s seat.

What’s causing this washout rate near 50 percent? The published analysis indicates two factors:

  • New hire disappointment that the job was significantly different from what they expected
  • Problematic relationships with dispatchers and managers early in their driving careers

New hire disappointment, according to the analysis, is partly the fault of the new hires themselves. Many have pre-conceived notions of what the work and lifestyle will be like but discover quickly that the reality is far different. Left unstated, but clearly implied, is the possibility that trucking companies, recruiters and training schools aren’t good at accurately setting new hire expectations.

Additionally, the analysis showed that newly hired drivers are particularly sensitive to, and turned off by, dispatchers who are less than collegial. Dispatchers who are rude or swear at drivers in person, over the phone or in electronic communications create a negative work environment that new drivers find to be a huge turnoff. Interestingly, the longer drivers stay in the industry, the less such factors matter in their job satisfaction.

Pay, while always a factor, did not show up in the analysis as a leading factor in the decision by half of all newly hired drivers to quite the business in less than six months.

Tactics for finding dedicated new drivers

How can trucking companies do a better job of hiring new drivers who’ll stay in the industry for years? That’s a huge and complex question, but one that is trying to be answered by probably everyone in the industry.

Here are seven interesting approaches being advocated and debated:

  1. Do a better job of communicating to job applicants and trainees what the job and lifestyle will be like once they’re driving on their own.
  2. Attract higher quality and better motivated applicants by raising hiring standards and training requirements to eliminate applicants who view truck driving as a last resort or easy career option.
  3. Raise driver pay to attract and retain higher quality employees who currently are opting to work in other blue collar fields where the pay is better and lifestyle easier on their families. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers is $19.36 an hour vs. $21.37 for production and non-supervisory employees in private, non-farm jobs.
  4. Find ways to attract younger drivers. Only 20.5 percent of today’s commercial drivers are between 20 and 35 years old. More than half are 45 or older.
  5. Transition heavy truck and tractor-trailer driver pay from the traditional pay-by-the-mile formula to straight hourly pay, perhaps with per diem pay and/or time-away overrides. Advocates note that in the less-than-truckload segment of the industry, where most drivers are paid by the hour rather than by the mile, the annual turnover rate is only 11 percent.
  6. Find ways to restore some sense of the mythologized “freedom” that older drivers complain has been lost as new technologies like electronic logging have invaded their cabs. Clearly technology is driving big enough efficiency gains that it won’t be going away, and likely will used even more heavily in the future of trucking. But some industry thinkers advocate finding ways to make drivers feel more in charge of their trucks and less micro-managed by dispatchers and managers.
  7. Find ways to reduce truck down time and maintenance costs. A common complaint among owner/operators and those drivers who lease their trucks from an operator is that today’s more complex engines and other equipment require too much time in the shop and are too costly to maintain at the standards required by corporate bosses and regulatory agencies. The resulting costs and downtime are significant drags on drivers’ earnings.