Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

‘Smokey and the Bandit’ Charm Fades as Truck Driver Hiring Lags

  • Struggle recruiting millennials risks worsening U.S. shortage
  • Autonomous truck technology threatens to shake up industry

It’s been 40 years since Burt Reynolds starred in “Smokey and the Bandit” and made driving a rig on the open highway seem like a cool way to make a living. That same year, only “Star Wars” sold more tickets.

These days, “Star Wars” still fills theaters but trucking no longer captures the imagination of movie goers or, it turns out, the young and unemployed. Veteran drivers are leaving the profession, and young people entering the workforce are put off by long hours away from home and the profession’s low-brow image. The result is a U.S. trucking industry with high turnover and a dwindling number of new recruits.

“The question is where we’ll be in five or 10 years,” said Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and former driver. “If e-commerce goes up a lot and the introduction of autonomous vehicles is slow and the industry does not shift to millennials, we could see actual shortages 10 years out.”

Most trucking companies have been able to make do so far, but as older truckers retire and an online-buying boom leads to surging deliveries, the fear is a driver shortage will spur delays and lost revenue. Offering generous signing bonuses, new technology and cozier cabs hasn’t done enough to overcome the aversion to lengthy times spent alone on the road. The industry is running out of time, with the baby-boomer demographic nearing retirement and millennials continuing to skirt the sector.

Not Glamorous

The annualized driver turnover rate at large truckload fleets was 74 percent in the first quarter and the industry was short about 48,000 drivers at the end of 2015. That shortage is expected to balloon to almost 175,000 by 2024, according to the American Trucking Associations.

“Every truckload carrier is always scrambling to fill their trucks,” Stephen Burks, an economist at the University of Minnesota Morris who used to be a driver, said in an interview.

Brick Kepler, a recruiter from the Professional Drivers Academy in Milton, Pennsylvania, often gets the cold shoulder when visiting high schools in search of potential workers. He said students have little interest in the trucking industry, with many pressured to pursue college rather than a blue-collar job. Young workers also know they might train for a career only to be replaced by driverless semis in a decade.

“I don’t think people look at the trucking industry as the easy, glamorous, high-paying job they want,” he said. “It doesn’t appeal to the younger generation.”

When they do attract young recruits, operators often encounter another snag: Drivers have to be 21 to take their trucks across state lines, a law that many industry stakeholders are working to change.

Pay, Bonuses

To boost recruitment and keep drivers invested in their jobs, Don Daseke, chief executive officer of specialized tucking operator Daseke Inc., is giving them free stock in the company that vests over five years. “It’s our way of showing our drivers that we respect them and they’re really important to us,” he said.

Some companies offer hefty signing bonuses. According to the American Trucking Associations’ 2014 Driver Compensation Study, 48 percent of newly-signed drivers received a signing bonus averaging $1,500. Some drivers have learned to cheat the system by signing up for a company just long enough to get the bonus, then jumping ship for another one -- a practice operators are trying to limit by withholding payouts until drivers hit certain milestones.

Timothy Judge, director of research at driver-retention consultant Stay Metrics, called such payouts “an act of desperation” and a poor long-term strategy. “What are you communicating to the drivers? That it’s all about the short-term,” he said.

Raising salaries is another option, but it would cut into profit margins. The University of Pennsylvania’s Viscelli said companies would have to double driver pay -- now about $41,000 -- to reduce turnover. About 30 percent of new drivers quit in the first three months, according to Stay Metrics.

Women Workers

Even if they can’t get millennials, shipping companies would do well to reach a new audience. The average worker in the trucking industry is 45 and nearly 75 percent of workers are white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 95 percent are men, according to Ellen Voie, chief executive officer of Women in Trucking.

Truck drivers are “Donald Trump’s base in demographic terms,” Burks said.

There’s been a growing push to make the job more appealing to women, such as by designing cabs that accommodate shorter bodies and hiring for regional routes that allow drivers to go home at night, Voie said. They’re also adding features that women drivers request like porta-potties, smoke alarms and additional cabinet space.
 
To boost retention, some companies like Prime Inc. offer new female drivers a female mentor, she said. The industry also starts young, hosting Girl Scouts who crawl into the truck cabs and receive a patch.

Work, Life

Trucking companies could attract more millennial and women workers by improving work-life balance for drivers, Viscelli said. Trading home-cooked meals for fast food pit stops and freshly-washed sheets for a cot in a truck cab takes its toll, and for many would-be drivers, bonuses and raises aren’t enough to compensate for the lifestyle.

“It doesn’t matter what you like in life; it’s going to be affected by living out of a truck,” Viscelli said.

Judge said salary isn’t as important to drivers as companies think. They place a greater value on home time, reasonable hours and their relationship with their dispatcher.

“If you ask executives what is causing people to quit, seven out of eight believe it’s pay,” he said. “For employees, one out of seven say it’s pay.”

An Autonomous Future

Then there’s the threat from autonomous trucks. In the long run, self-driving trucks that companies including Uber Technologies Inc. and Tesla Inc. are working to develop will save freight companies money. But it makes recruiting young people even tougher.

Last week, Tesla met with California and Nevada agencies about testing its autonomous semi truck ahead of Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk’s unveiling of the next addition to the electric-car maker’s lineup.

Bob Biesterfeld, president of North American transportation at C.H. Robinson, said autonomous trucks may still need a driver in the cab to make sure nothing goes wrong.

“Companies are not developing technology with a goal of replacing drivers,” he said. “Their goal is creating safer highways.”

But not everyone buys that, and Viscelli says truckers across the board are worried about their job stability -- a challenge for a sector in search of new recruits.

“The hype might be a little more intense, but this is a really big deal and provoking all kinds of uncertainty,” he said. “There are people with a lot of skin in the game who are very nervous right now.”

For more on self-driving trucks, check out the Decrypted podcast:

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