The number of drivers employed handling big rigs in the U.S. climbed last year for the first time since 2008, an encouraging sign for shippers and trucking companies concerned about the availability of trucks and drivers who can operate them.
Data released March 27 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the number of tractor-trailer or heavy truck drivers rose to 1.51 million by May 2011. That 2.9 percent year-over-year increase means U.S. employers hired nearly 42,000 additional drivers.
But trucking companies will have to hire hundreds of thousands more drivers to meet projected freight demand from shippers in years to come; even with last year’s uptick in payroll, they’re starting from a severe employment deficit.
BLS data reveal another underlying pay issue that may account for trucking’s trouble attracting drivers. The average wage of a tractor-trailer driver is lower than the overall average U.S. wage, and the gap is widening.
Since 2001, the BLS average wage for truck drivers has increased 18.2 percent, but the average U.S. wage for all occupations is up 33 percent. In 2001, there was only a 1 percent gap between those wages. Now that gap stands at 12 percent.
Between 2008 and 2010, the U.S. lost 18.4 percent of its tractor-trailer drivers — more than 330,000 jobs — largely as smaller carriers went bankrupt or laid off drivers. With pay and miles plummeting, many drivers may have just quit.
Even with last year’s gain, the driver pool is still 16.1 percent short of the nearly 1.8 million truckers employed in 2007, the peak year for trucking employment. In fact, fewer big rig drivers were employed last year than any year since 1998.
That shortfall will lead some to cry “shortage,” and there’s no doubt trucking companies are finding it more difficult to recruit and keep drivers, in particular, long-haul truckload carriers who may keep drivers on the road for weeks.
Where the shortage really lies is a bit more difficult to pin down. Surely, the 330,000 drivers who left the industry between 2008 and 2010 haven’t all found jobs elsewhere, and experienced drivers might be tempted back to the wheel.
There seems little incentive for those truck drivers to return, however, except higher per-mile pay, which overall is in short supply. Tractor-trailer driver pay on average increased last year, but only by 1 percent, according to the BLS data.
That raised the mean or average wage for a tractor-trailer driver in the U.S. to $39,830 in 2011. Average pay in the BLS’s “general freight trucking” subcategory is slightly higher, at $41,250 a year, and grocery drivers averaged $43,900.
Of course, the BLS data represents an average of all types of tractor-trailer driving jobs across multiple industries, not just over-the-road, for-hire trucking, and truck drivers with safe records and experience should command higher pay.
It’s sometimes difficult to compare the BLS categories with actual types of trucking operations. “General freight trucking,” for example, includes truckload and less-than-truckload carriers, which have different driver pay scales.
But only 25 percent of the 1.51 million tractor-trailer drivers included in the Labor Department agency’s data for 2011 made more than $47,000 a year, and that’s before deducting daily expenses and other costs from the total per-mile pay.
There are already signs that last year’s gain in trucking employment has slowed, if not stalled. Trucking payrolls rose only 3.2 percent year-over-year in March and declined by 1,900 jobs from February, according to BLS data released April 6.
That sequential monthly slip was the first decline in the Labor Department agency’s seasonally adjusted trucking job numbers since last July. Unadjusted raw data showed trucking jobs edged up just 0.6 percent in March from February.
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Trucking hit the hiring brakes as U.S. job growth slowed to 120,000 in March after three months of 200,000-plus employment gains. The U.S. unemployment rate fell 0.1 percentage point to 8.2 percent, its lowest level since January 2009.
Not only are trucking wages not keeping up with inflation, but they’re also lagging further behind the national average wage — $45,250 last year. That could leave trucking companies playing catch-up when other businesses start hiring.
Some trucking companies already are raising pay or experimenting with different types of pay schemes. Con-way Truckload, for example, is testing a system that offers a guaranteed level of pay to team drivers who meet certain criteria.
Wages are only one component in trucking’s chronic problem finding enough drivers, a problem that has existed as long as motor trucks, and perhaps even in the days of the horse wagon. But the pay part is increasingly difficult to ignore.
There are those who will say $40,000 a year is a fair wage for driving a truck — a job that — although highly regulated, critical to public safety and requiring an increasing degree of technical sophistication — is defined as “unskilled” by the Labor Department.
The marketplace, however, seems to have a different opinion, an opinion that truckers and shippers — who are likely to ultimately foot the bill for higher pay — need to listen to now if they hope to avoid a real shortage of drivers.