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A USA TODAY investigation finds America’s retail giants have spent a decade ignoring signs of labor abuse in their supply chains, sometimes fighting government efforts to crack down, even as thousands of truckers were driven into debt and poverty.
Towing a tanker full of milk from Florida, professional driver Joe Woodson pulls off for eggs and coffee at a massive Pilot Flying J truck stop in West Memphis.
Among the heavy trucks refueling at the diesel pumps are some that show the new sign of the times: ads recruiting truck drivers.
Woodson sees these ads regularly on passing trucks during his milk run to Little Rock, Ark. Posted on semi-trailers, the ads boast experienced heavy-truck drivers can land big bonuses, up to $8,000.
It’s a large pile of cash for a big-rig driver like Woodson to collect by jumping to another truck line. A construction worker until the 2008 recession halted building, he now routinely bunks in the truck cab and figures his driving pay before taxes this year will reach $70,000.
But he’s not ready to jump for the bonus. He knows something else. Driver-wanted signs and bonus pay signal turmoil in the trucking industry.
Almost 400,000 people nationwide obtain commercial driver licenses every year. But the nomadic life and low income fuels constant turnover. Trucking executives warn the country is desperately short of drivers to run the nation’s fleet of 4 million heavy freight trucks known as Class 8 vehicles.
These semi-trucks amass 280 million miles a year on the road, almost double the freight mileage a quarter century ago, a truck boom fed by a bigger economy, the rise of a Sun Belt automotive industry shipping auto parts across the continent, freight leaving the railroads for the highways and the trend among retail chains and manufacturers to do away with warehouses. Instead, truckers haul the goods on the interstates, timing the delivery for when the product is needed in the store or the factory.
America moves on wheels, as the old saying goes, but the 10.5 billion tons of cargo hauled in a typical year has touched off a bitter dispute between major truck lines and many of the 350,000 small firms known as owner-operators that lease or buy heavy freight trucks.
While the American Trucking Association, a trade group near Washington, says truck lines immediately need 50,000 more drivers, an owner-operator group contends plenty of drivers are available. In short supply is freight.
Jefferson Graham reports on Cargomatic, the “Uber for truckers” which lets them know about new shipments to fill extra space on their rigs, all from an app. #TalkingTech.
Too many trucks and truck lines has caused the big truck companies to actively turn over the staff of drivers in a bid to raise profit by recruiting novice drivers at lower compensation, claimed Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, an organization in Grain Valley, Mo., representing about 160,000 owner-operators.
“People talk about the driver shortage. What they’re really talking about is turnover,” Spencer said. “It’s a really tough job. You work hard and you work a lot. There’s lots and lots of personal sacrifice. People get tired of the stress and leave.”
Is better pay the answer?
Bob Costello, chief economist of the American Trucking Association, said truck lines need to raise compensation for drivers, though the shortage is real. Many drivers are in their 50s and 60s. As they retire the shortage could exceed 174,000 drivers in seven years if the recruiting efforts fall short, ATA predicts.
“Unless steps are taken to make it easier for individuals to pursue careers in trucking, demand for drivers will continue to outstrip supply – eventually even leading to supply chain disruptions,” Costello warned.
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With the typical professional truck driver earning about $43,000 per year, Spencer insists a driver shortage should lift income. Instead, annual compensation among the country’s 3.5 million Class 8 drivers averages about $50,000 to $60,000 — the same level as in the early 1980s. The difference is $50,000 then afforded what would cost $118,000 today.
Most of the driver turnover occurs in fleets that haul entire truckloads. If a factory in North Carolina has a full load of appliance parts to ship to Electrolux in Memphis, a broker can line up a driver running for a truck line that specializes in hauling entire loads for one customer at a time.
The opposite is less-than-truckload lines that bring freight from multiple customers to a central depot and ship it out aboard a truck that might make multiple stops. Driver turnover among less-than-truckload carriers is about 7%, Spencer said, compared to almost 95% at truckload carriers which tend to make longer runs.
‘Ain’t no shortage’
Despite the turnover, some owner-operators doubt drivers are in short supply. The high number of owner-operators looking for full-truckload business, drivers say, tends to depress freight rates. Because of the industry’s over capacity, the typical fleet has only about 20% of its trucks on the road, analysts say.
“There ain’t no shortage of drivers,” said Amy Key, 44, who travels with husband Randy of Key Key Trucking of Malvern, Ark. “Everyone wants to be a truck driver. They think there’s so much money in it.”
Motorists who see the recruiting ads on the trucks or thumb through trade journals in the trade in the truck stops might agree.
Hundreds of truck lines have ramped up recruiting staffs and promised touches especially appealing to professional drivers. These special touches are highlighted in “Choose Your Haul,” a booklet Randall-Reilly Publications of Tuscaloosa, Ala., puts in truck stops.
Covenant Transport of Chattanooga offers drivers a run home every other week and guarantees $100-per-day late pay. Total Transportation of Richland, Miss., touts it will pay weigh-in fees and provide a $2,500 signing bonus. Crete Carrier of Lincoln., Neb., boasts 7% more mileage than the industry norm. Shaffer, an arm of Crete, advertises permissible 65-mile-per-hour cruise speeds.
Forward Air of Greenville, Tenn., notes a two-driver team can travel 5,800 miles every week, gross up to $392,000 per year before expenses. Watson Shepard Trucking of Helena, Mont., claims “world class” freight dispatchers and offers a $100 bonus for each extra week on the road. Summit Trucking of Clarksville, Ind., pledges drivers can get home every other day.
“A lot of people don’t know that if a company has to bribe you to work for them something’s wrong,” said Annette Sammis, 55, of Oak Ridge, Tenn., a driver for Fraley and Schilling truck line of Rushville, Ind.
Sammis, a professional driver since 2008, said the driver turnover traces to low pay, a nomadic lifestyle and privacy concerns including cameras in the cab monitoring every move and the mandatory use, beginning Dec. 18, of electronic log devices known as ELDs.
By monitoring the vehicle’s operating time, many drivers fear, ELD will force them to curb their actual driving time to the legal limit of 11 hours per day. Truck executives expect more than 10% of owner-operators will leave the business once ELDs begin to restrict income.
Although many drivers contend the overcapacity already has cut income, analysts point out freight rates have begun to climb. Drivers are compensated based on these rates, which averaged $2.10 per mile last week, led by gains at Memphis, Los Angeles and Buffalo, N.Y., reported DAT Load Boards Services of Beaverton, Ore.
Freight rates have risen about 20% in a year on the spot market, said Noel Perry, a managing partner of market analyst FTR Transportation Intelligence of Bloomington, Ind.
“If there’s a shortage of drivers, rates are going to get bid up. It’s starting to happen,” Perry said. “It takes time for any market to adjust.”
Watching the industry’s turmoil from the cab of his milk tanker is Joe Woodson.
After the 2008 recession wiped out bridge construction work, Woodson, 51, a long-time New Yorker, found his way to Williams Dairy Trucking of Baxley, Ga. Lately he’s noticed the ads promising lofty bonuses for truck drivers.
Still, he said, he likes regularly being home at Live Oak, Fla. He said he’s not certain he could get home as often driving for another carrier. So a bonus alone is not going to sway him.
“Most truck drivers want to be close to home. Most have families,” Woodson said. “They can be out on the road a month at a time. I don’t want to live like that.’’