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Truck driving heroes need a professional makeover

For too brief of a moment at the outset of the COVID pandemic in America, truck drivers began to be acknowledged as heroes within the economy, delivering needed goods across the country while most of us were in lockdown.

How quickly the country stopped being thankful for our over-the-road heroes! As we ponder how to address the worsening driver shortage, perhaps we should start with making sure drivers are appreciated for the work they do. That can lead to rethinking the image of the profession to become more aspirational, and even begin to entice more new, young blood to the industry.  

“I don’t call my drivers drivers. I refer to them as Industrial Athletes,” said Jon Stanley, managing partner of Synergy-Solutions speaking on a panel at the recent Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) conference in Las Vegas. ”Young people want to be more than just a driver. We have to get creative if we want to attract new drivers to our industry.”

The three key ideas discussed at TCA to solve for the driver shortage were:

Targeting young people

Better job conditions

Reliable income

Trucking is long overdue for a rebrand. How do we, as an industry, make trucking a desirable job? Kids grow up wanting to be a doctor or a firefighter or to fly to outer space. How do we get trucking on a kid’s ‘I want to be’ list of desired occupations?

The average age of a truck driver in America is 46, compared to 41 for all workers, according to 2019 Census Bureau data -- and many are nearing retirement. This will only make the driver shortage worse.  

The question is, how do we attract more drivers into the profession, including young drivers with long careers ahead of them?

During the conference workshop The Aging Population and Driver Shortage, the panel welcomed the new federal government Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program which allows 18-year-olds to drive semi trucks across state lines (so long as companies implement vigorous mentoring and coaching programs to ensure safety). This is making possible a new initiative to recruit recent graduates from high school, who previously have been prohibited by age from starting a career in the industry. Many in Generation Z are looking to start their careers right away, turned off to college by the massive amounts of debt accumulated by those who came before them. It’s advantageous to try to interest them in driving now, not wait until they turn 21 and may already be well into a different career.  

Quality of life issues are increasingly important to attract and retain drivers of all ages. Ensuring that drivers are back home at night as much as possible is critical, said conference attendee Jerry Sandler, owner of 51 Trucking and former long-haul driver himself. His company is conscious about what routes they accept or decline because some are just too hard on the driver. The days of a driver being away two or three weeks at a time are gone, he said, and with the rise of last mile delivery services like Amazon, carriers have to put the driver first or they’ll lose them to competition.

It’s time to follow other industries with a new approach to driver pay, said John Marienau, co-founder  of Origin Trucking in Las Vegas. Origin pays their 10 drivers a “very good” salary, and provides healthcare and a 401k. Drivers want a reliable income and in return they are loyal, he says. Origin doesn’t have an issue with retaining drivers; indeed, it has a waiting list.

A silver lining to the current driver shortage is that it may spawn a renewed respect of those behind the wheel, which could lead to long overdue refresh of the image of this underappreciated profession.