With seismic changes predicted in interstate shipping, it’s critical to attract good drivers and keep them happy. What does job satisfaction mean at a time when the very nature of the job is changing?
There is no occupation more symbolic of twentieth-century America than the truck driver. Fulfilling the role that cowboys occupied in the nineteenth century, truckers have come to symbolize the coast-to-coast expansion of the country, the movement of goods from faraway places, the rugged individualism of the Western frontier, and the way local trade has become intercontinental.
Trucking is an essential element of the American produce market; 64 percent of the nation’s goods are hauled by truck, and as much as 92 percent of the country’s fresh food ends up on a refrigerated truck at some point.
But the industry has changed a great deal since 1914, when most of the 100,000 trucks on the road were largely unregulated. Economic shifts, changing demographics, new laws, thinning margins, and emerging technologies have all conspired to make conditions unpredictable for America’s 3.5 million truck drivers and the 9 million registered vehicles they operate.
Blueprints recently spoke to several truck drivers, and the companies they work with, to talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on the open road.
What Do Drivers Want?
One of the most-discussed issues in the transportation industry has been the threat of a driver shortage, as fewer young people are joining the ranks of a profession that can be strenuous and lead to vast stretches away from home.
A recent study by the American Transportation Research Institute found the average age of truck drivers in the United States was 52, and that the number of drivers age 30 or younger has sharply decreased over the past 20 years.
While most drivers interviewed cited pay and benefits as important, a surprising number said these factors were not their primary motivation for staying or leaving the profession. Owner-operator Dick Pingel notes that while pay is a factor, being treated with respect and getting recognition for a job well done is equally important. Tight margins and increased competition, he says, is leading to unrealistic expectations: “Because of the perceived driver shortage, drivers are expected to exceed reasonable expectations.”
Jimmy Christenson, who drives for Kenosha, WI’s Cool Runnings, agrees. “The driver shortage is still getting worse,” he says, and with high turnover, “productivity diminishes in a situation where you’re already on a limited schedule. It’s hard to attract new talent in an environment like that.” He also believes consolidation among the industry’s largest trucking lines has helped push smaller owner-operators out of business.