America has a massive shortage of truck drivers. Joyce Brenny, head of Brenny Transportation in Minnesota, increased driver pay 15 percent this year to try to attract more drivers. Many of her drivers now earn $80,000, she says, yet she still can't find enough people for the job.
Many trucking companies are so desperate for drivers that they are offering signing bonuses and pay raises. So why don't more Americans want this job? We asked truck drivers who have been doing the job anywhere from four months to 40 years for their views.
Most said the answer is simple: The lifestyle is rough. You barely see your family, you rarely shower, and you get little respect from car drivers, police or major retailers. Michael Dow said he has been divorced twice because of trucking. Donna Penland said she gained 60 pounds her first year from sitting all day and a lack of healthful food on the road.
A few drivers told The Washington Post that they earn $100,000, but many said their annual pay is less than $50,000 (government statistics say median pay for the industry is $42,000). As for the bonuses, driver Daniel Gollnick said they are a “complete joke” because of all the strings attached.
Despite the hardships, half said they would recommend the job to friends and family, chiefly because, as Gollnick said, “it's the easiest money you can get without a college degree.” Here are the drivers' perspectives on America's trucking crisis.
“I have been divorced two times because of truck driving.” — Michael Dow
Michael Dow of Dallas has been a truck driver for more than two decades. He and his brother started a company, Dow Brothers Transportation, this year. They hope it will more than double their pay from prior years.
Yearly income: $45,000
Why don't people want this job? “The pay is so far behind the curve. I make less money now than I did 20 years ago if you adjust for inflation and cost of living. I figured it out once, and I was making $14 or $15 an hour driving for the big carriers. People flipping hamburgers are demanding $15 an hour.”
Have you gotten a raise? “I have, because I went out and started my own company this year. The rates have never been this good in over 20 years. I hope the driver shortage continues. Skilled drivers like me aren't cheap right now. I'm anticipating I'll make $85,000 to $120,000 this year.”
Would you recommend this job? “I have a 21-year-old son in the military who is about ready to come out. In all honesty, I do not wish him to get into this industry because it's a hard life. I don't recommend it to anyone who has a family. My kids are in their 20s now. I missed most of their lives growing up. They tell me they wish I would have been home more. I have been divorced two times because of truck driving. For a real perspective, talk to a trucker's wife.”
“I see those ads for big driver bonuses, but it's a complete joke.” — Daniel Gollnick
Daniel Gollnick of Melrose, Wis., drives for a company that has him home each night. He used to drive a flatbed truck across the country, but his girlfriend didn't like him being away so much.
Yearly income: $45,000
Did you get a raise lately? “We got a $1 raise this year. We were at $17.50 an hour for most drivers. Now we're at $18.50. That barely covers inflation or anything. I see those ads for big driver bonuses, but it's a complete joke. I've worked for a couple of major trucking companies: Roehl Transport and Melton Truck Lines. Both offered sign-on bonuses, but what they don't tell you is what it's dependent upon to get that $1,000. Sometimes you needed to have certifications to deal with hazmat or be qualified to drive on military bases or ports. And you need to meet fuel-usage requirements, but they usually give you the oldest trucks that are least likely to get the sign-on bonuses because they use more fuel.”
Would you recommend this job? “I do. I tell friends who are working minimum-wage or factory jobs to go get their CDL [Commercial Driver's License, which takes a few weeks]. It's the easiest money you can get without a college degree, but it's a hard industry. You're going to be alone a lot.”
Is the industry in a crisis? “There are not enough truckers. I've been running around doing extra runs, because we are shorthanded. But I've noticed I'm not truly picking up more physical freight. I'm just picking up at more places.”
“I gained 60 pounds because it's a sedentary life.” — Donna Penland
Donna Penland of Houston decided to get her CDL 18 months ago after her boyfriend was laid off from his job and wanted to try trucking. The duo “team-drove” a truck, meaning they would trade off driving so the vehicle would be on the road almost 24 hours a day. They eventually broke up, but Penland continued driving on her own.
Yearly income: "$50,000 is where you’re going to be when you work for a big company. If you want to make more money than that, you have to find an independent person with two or three trucks that really does appreciate you as a driver and they share profits with you.”
Have you received a raise? “I work for Marten Transport now. They don't offer signing bonuses, but I work on a Coca-Cola dedicated route, and Coke is putting up bonuses because they need drivers. So I got a $3,500 signing bonus. But they don't just give you $3,500. I received $500 after 30 days and another $1,000 after 60 days. They spread it out.”
Would you recommend this job? “No. Not to most of my friends. It takes a special kind of person, because you basically give up your life for the job. You are dedicated to that truck. Most people are 'over the road' drivers, because that is where you make the most money. It means you go coast to coast and border to border. You are supposed to get a day off after every seven days of driving, but companies prefer that you stay out 60 days and then take just a few days off. I gained 60 pounds because it's a sedentary life. You just drive, sleep, drive, sleep. Companies don't treat you like a human. You are a just a machine that makes money for them.”
Is this a good job for women? “I think it is a good profession for women, but there are a lot of doors to break down. The guys treat you like you're stupid and don't know anything. And companies are almost always asking you to do stuff that's illegal — to work extra hours or to dump trash illegally.”
“I wouldn't let my kids even think about doing this.” — Boris Strbac
Boris Strbac of Milwaukee is the manager of Star Trucking. He employs 35 drivers and is a former driver who has worked for other companies and on his own.
Would you recommend this job? “Never. I wouldn't let my kids even think about doing this. This is a really, really hard job. On top of that, people don't respect truck drivers. We are treated as the bad guys on the road by other drivers and the police. The majority of police treat drivers like criminals. We get pulled over for stupid stuff. One of my drivers got a violation because he didn't have enough windshield fluid. That violation stays on the driver's record and my company's record for three years.”
Is the industry in a crisis? “We are seeing record bookings this year and record pay per mile. The reason is there aren't enough drivers. The whole industry is a mess. And it's going to get a hell of a lot more interesting soon. No one knows what to do about the driver shortage. People are banking on driverless trucks, but those are not coming anytime soon.”
“You can kiss your social life goodbye.” — Lee Klass
Lee Klass of Portland, Ore., has been driving for four decades. He owns his truck now and does the jobs he wants. He says the real problem isn't the shortage of drivers — it's all the experienced drivers leaving.
Yearly income: Just less than $50,000
How can companies attract more drivers? “Less rules, more money.”
What has changed about truck driving in 40 years? “There's massive turnover in truck driving. People are leaving by the tens of thousands. It's a tough life, and there are too many regulations now. There's a ton more electronic monitoring than when I started. For people who have issues with authority, and I was certainly one of those, this was a good job. You were left on your own. As long as you got your loads delivered, nobody bothered you. Now you're monitored. As soon as you stop, you get a message from the company asking, 'Why have you stopped?' And the government is tracking you with the electronic logging device.”
[In December, the U.S. government required all truck drivers to switch to electronic logging devices that track their hours and ensure they don't drive more than 11 hours during a 14-hour period. Then drivers are required to take a 10-hour break.]
Would you recommend this job? “You can kiss your social life goodbye.”
“It's more than getting behind a steering wheel and driving.” — Ryan Kitchel
Ryan Kitchel of Greensboro, N.C., has been a flatbed truck driver for two years. He used to work in emergency services but wanted a change. He is home most weekends, but during the week he drives all over the East Coast with “open trailers” that carry steel, roofs, FEMA trailers and more.
Yearly income: $100,000
Have you gotten a raise lately? “I make decent money. I get paid a percentage [of my load cost]. But I make about the same that my dad made in the 1970s.”
What's frustrating about being a truck driver? “My dad was a truck driver. There was a different level of respect for truck drivers then and more camaraderie. Car drivers today have no understanding of what we do. They cut us off all of the time. Car drivers see a space between trucks, and they jump in. They don't realize that's our stopping lane. We need that space.”
Why aren't more people becoming truckers? “I used to train drivers. A lot of guys don't realize everything that is involved in trucking. It's more than getting behind a steering wheel and driving. You got to be able to do your paperwork. You got to watch your surroundings. You have to keep the truck and trailer in line. You have to watch everyone around you, because cars aren't watching.”
Would you recommend this job? “Yeah. What other job are you going to do minimum training for and jump out of the box making $50,000?”
“Companies don't want to hire you until you have six months of experience.” — Donald Rich
Donald Rich of Yountville, Calif., spent 20 years as a cook in the Army. After retiring from the military, he began working at restaurants, but the pay was so lousy that his wife encouraged him to become a truck driver. He got his license in February and was hired immediately.
Yearly income: $60,000 (expected)
What do you like so far about trucking? “It pays twice as much as the restaurant business. And the potential is there to make a lot more. The first year is supposed to be the hardest. A lot of trucking companies don't want to hire you until you have at least six months of experience.”
Have other companies tried to lure you away? “Yes. Other companies have already tried to lure me away. I've had calls from eight or nine companies already. Some tell me to stay where I am and get more experience.”
Why is the industry in a crisis? “There's a lot of wasted time in trucking. The industry could be a lot more efficient. You end up sitting outside a business for six or eight hours waiting for someone to unload your truck. Businesses don't care, but you are losing hundreds or thousands of dollars of potential pay because you have to just wait.”
Would you recommend this job? “Yes. It will give you a survival income. But it might not be for you if you don't like small enclosed spaces and you want to bathe more than twice a week.”
Teddy Amenabar contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Donna Penland drives for Martin Transportation. She drives for Marten Transport.