So long to the Bandit

Older readers of The Journal of Commerce no doubt recall the 1977 film “Smoky and the Bandit,” in which handsome, charismatic Burt Reynolds played ”legendary truck driver Bo “Bandit” Darville” (thanks, Wikipedia!), involved in a high-speed run over five states while hauling a load of Coors Beer to Georgia. Shippers should be grateful to Mr. Reynolds, because “Smoky and the Bandit” has saved them a lot of money over the years.

“Smoky and the Bandit” and hit songs such as 1975’s “Convoy” helped cement in the country’s collective consciousness an image of the trucker as an independent “knight of the road,” seeing the U.S. from behind the wheel of a big, gleaming 18-wheeler, master of his own destiny. What that produced was a period in which prospective truck drivers proved willing to accept low wages in return for the opportunity to get behind the wheel and gain access to a lifestyle they thought was glamorous and independent.

Of course, to the extent that was ever true, it certainly isn’t in today’s world. Today’s truck drivers are subject to a myriad of regulations, with every mile tracked by GPS and satellite, bound to tight schedules and routes. In other words, it’s about as far from being the “Bandit” as you can get. As a result, drivers are taking a cold, hard look at the profession and its rewards — and it isn’t pretty in many respects.

Today’s long-haul, irregular-route common carrier is asking its drivers to spend a couple of weeks at a time away from home, sitting in a constantly vibrating seat with no companion while maintaining complete alertness and concentration — not to mention irregular hours, truck-stop food and sleeping in the cab — all for a paycheck that varies from week to week and adds up on average to less than $50,000 a year.

Is it any wonder the driver supply is becoming tight? During a recent investor conference call, driver supply and compensation expert Gordon Klemp indicated that 56 percent of the current for-hire driver population is older than 45, and more than 22 percent is 55 or older. Compare that to 8.1 percent of drivers under the age of 30. That should set the alarm bells ringing.

At current wage rates, the numbers just don’t add up for folks looking to enter the profession. And the need for new drivers is only going to grow. How many shippers think testing drivers for sleep apnea is a bad idea? Or that in today’s day and age trucks shouldn’t be equipped with an electronic logging device that reliably tracks driving hours and eliminates cheating on the paper logs? Or that a test of hair follicles that captures 24 months of drug use versus an easier-to-beat urine test shouldn’t be put into practice?

The departure of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator Ann Ferro could lead some to think the supposed “war on trucking” will come to an end. But the changes under way are about far more than a single individual. The American public has always had an uneasy relationship with the 40-ton vehicles with which they share the nation’s highways. They want those trucks to be as safe as possible, and that desire will continue to drive regulation no matter who heads the agency, or sits in the Oval Office come 2017, for that matter.

What all this means is that driver pay is going to increase, and not by a little bit. Each reader can form his or her opinion as to what level of annual pay will be needed to generate the new drivers on which our economy depends. The numbers generally floated are in the $75,000 range — 50 to 90 percent more than current levels. Wages won’t get there overnight, but they will get there eventually. FTR Associates estimates labor costs account for almost 70 cents per mile today, so you get some idea of the rate changes this will entail.

To be clear, compensation isn’t the only issue, nor is raising driver pay the only solution. Changes in the work environment could go a long way toward helping the situation. A great place to start is at the shipper’s dock. Start treating the driver decently and stop wasting his or her time.

But the status quo in driver compensation is unsustainable, and we need to move to a different paradigm. The days of the Bandit behind the wheel are long gone. The sooner we can get to a more reasonable level of driver pay, the sooner we can start digging out of the demographic hole in which we find ourselves today. 

Lawrence Gross is president of Gross Transportation Consulting in Mahwah, New Jersey, and a partner at FTR Transportation Intelligence. A veteran with 34 years in the transportation business, he covers freight transportation, concentrating on the intermodal and trucking sectors from a transportation and equipment perspective. He is a frequent speaker at industry events. Contact him at ljgross@optonline.net and follow him on Twitter: @intermodalist.

 

 

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