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Trucking can be tough. And the view on the road ahead for truckers appears increasingly murky.
Still, truckers keep climbing behind the wheel. And with the demand for goods movement booming, the industry needs more recruits than ever to fill those driver seats.
The next few years promise to be especially volatile for drivers. That’s because:
• Wages aren’t growing relative to inflation. Truckers in California make well below the state’s mean wage, even in higher-cost urban communities such as Los Angeles.
• More truckers die in accidents than in any other occupation — and the number of fatal crashes involving heavy trucks has been creeping up since 2009. In the most recent numbers available, 745 truckers were killed nationwide in 2015.
• Federal rules kick in this year that require devices in big rigs to measure driver hours. The goal is safety, to assure that drivers don’t push themselves to exhaustion. But some in the industry fear it will frustrate drivers and extend delivery times.
• For decades, many companies have steadily phased out salaried jobs — those with overtime, health insurance, workers compensation and other benefits — and phased in self-managed independent contractors who must arrange for their own health care and often lease their trucks from the company.
• Such companies as Otto, Freightliner and Daimler are progressing toward trucks that speed goods to market without drivers at all. The “empty seat” model is years away, but it doesn’t fuel a feeling of job security for truckers.
“It is boring and lonely and you miss your family and then the companies don’t pay enough per mile,” said long-haul trucker Tia Shackleford. But she, like many truckers, keeps turning on the ignition.
Though employers say they fear a drought of drivers that will lead to production slowdowns, they say anticipated shortages haven’t caused a slowdown in deliveries.
In fact, more people are employed as truckers than a decade ago. Truck driver is among the most commonly held jobs in California because — unlike a customer service representative or factory worker — the task can’t be outsourced.
However, the churn rate — the need for new recruits replacing drivers who leave the business or retire — is growing.
Some employers, fearing lawsuits and thinning worker pools, are actually restoring old-fashioned benefited employee positions.
“It’s still a blue-collar job that pays well,” said Melissa Infusino, director of workforce development at Long Beach City College. “And there are fewer and fewer of those around.”
Pay a mixed bag
“It’s still a great industry and a great job,” said Infusino, who says she gets three times as many applicants as she has seats for in the five commercial-trucking classes LBCC offers each year.
For members of the workforce who aren’t bound for a bachelor’s degree, driver jobs can compensate better than retail work at the mall or a fast-food eatery.
Still, the wages are a mixed bag — and income growth lags behind other industries.
California’s mean wage is $56,840 per year. The mean wage of a Los Angeles-area truck driver sits at about $44,780 a year. In the Inland Empire, truckers take home about $48,050.
Some companies pay more generously, especially for seasoned workers with clean accident records. Wal-Mart offers as much as $80,000 for some drivers — and other employers can match that rate or do better.
Only about the top 5 percent of drivers, however, make more than $80,000, said Gordon Klemp, president of the National Transportation Institute. And over the past 16 years, wages for big-rig drivers have grown slower than inflation.
“The pay isn’t bad,” said Klemp, “if it was a $50,000 job and you slept in your own bed at night and go to your kid’s baseball games on the weekend. But that’s not this job,”
“This job keeps you out for about 21 days,” he said, “you buy your own meals at truck stops and you sleep in the back of trucks.”
That lifestyle can make it tough for companies to hold on to long-haul drivers.
“It’s a brutal job,” said Steve Viscelli, sociologist and author of “The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.”
“Most people can’t imagine the hours that truck drivers work,” he said.
“It’s rough,” said long-haul driver Shackleford, who said she has thought about quitting more than once. “It ain’t all cherries and peaches,”
Demand for recruits
Wayne Cederholm, a recruiter at C.R. England, a Salt Lake City-based trucking company with a 5,000-big-rig fleet, said many aspiring drivers sign on because they prefer riding the highway to sitting in an office or behind a counter.
But Cederholm estimates for every worker he recruits, another drops out. His company is in constant “hire mode.”
“The competition for these drivers is so high that fleets are offering a sign-on bonus,” said Bob Costello, an economist for the American Trucking Associations. “Fleets are recruiting each others’ drivers. It gets pretty aggressive.”
So far, the industry is keeping pace. Nonetheless, openings are plentiful and recruitment efforts are quite visible on TV and the web.
The American Trucking Association fears bigger shortfalls. By 2024, the industry could be short 175,000 drivers, it projects.
Further complicating matters: Coming regulations that will force drivers to put devices measuring their hours driven into their cabins.
The rules are intended to protect drivers — and motorists with whom they share the road — by keeping them from driving too many hours, ending up weary and distracted.
As drivers restrict their days, productivity is expected to fall from three to six percent, said Klemp of the National Transportation Institute. And for drivers paid by the mile, shorter days could mean lower pay.
The silver lining? As the demand for commercial drivers rise, salaries could surge, too.
Cederholm has his pitch ready. “You can make good money, you have freedom,” he said. “In that way, it’s kind of anomaly from other jobs.”
Contracts vs. jobs
Contracting is a common arrangement in the industry, Viscelli said. And that can account for some of its lowest wages, he added.
For independent drivers who own their own trucks, such contract relationships can be lucrative, said Weston LaBar, executive director of the Harbor Trucking Association. Owner-operators can also enjoy more flexibility, he said.
But truckers who don’t own their own vehicles often must lease their 18-wheelers from companies that dispatch them to jobs. Barb Maynard, a Teamster organizer at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — where 16,000 truckers ferry freight inland — is no fan of such contracts. She says they can deprive truckers of workers’ compensation, overtime and other benefits enjoyed by traditional employees. She’s been pushing for change for years.
Many others have challenged these arrangements, too. Since 2011, more than 800 claims arguing that California truckers should have been considered employees have been filed with the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. The agency adjudicates wage claims and is an enforcement branch under the California Labor Commissioner’s Office.
According to the union, about 300 workers have won such challenges during that period. About $35 million has been awarded to drivers.
The system, however, may be evolving.
Victor La Rosa, who has been in the business for decades, has gone back in time. He’s switched his Rancho Dominguez-based business, Total Transportation Services Inc., from a contracting model to an employee-based format.
After watching the legal challenges to trucking companies mount, La Rosa decided his company couldn’t afford to risk the liability. “We are now seeing a much higher retention rate and we are seeing that it’s much safer,” he said.
La Rosa offers paid training, company-owned trucks at no charge to drivers and worker benefits.
Ruth Erazo and her husband, Steve, recently began working for La Rosa, pulling short hauls with the hope they can work their way up to higher-paying positions.
A former office manager with a Bachelor of Science degree, Ruth sees steady work and good pay, despite an industry in full flux and the specter of automation on the horizon.
“People are looking for drivers,” she said. “If you can get in there, you are automatically making a decent amount of money.”