It is estimated that the United States is currently short about 80,000 commercial truck drivers. Trucking companies will claim that we can’t recruit enough drivers, but people like me who have been in the industry have been calling bull on that for decades.
The real problem is that we can’t keep them. I still remember being at a congressional hearing given by Congressman Reid Ribble of Wisconsin in 2015 He was sitting at a table with representatives of three major trucking companies, and led a conversation on how they could recruit more drivers. After all the ideas – mostly whining – the floor was opened for questions from the audience of a few hundred people. I raised my hand and Congressman Ribble called on me. I stood up and said “You’re asking the wrong question. The question should be: Why can’t we keep drivers?” You could have heard a pin drop.
At that time, I just recited numbers. We have a need for about 3.5 million active commercial drivers. Every year we recruit about 500,000. That should be enough. The real problem is that we can’t keep them. At the time, the average driving career lasted an average of 3.2 years. By comparison, the average NFL career lasts 3.5 years. Regular industry turnover rates vary between 90 and 100 percent. That has been consistent since I started driving in 1988.
For sure, trucking is a hard job. When I turned 60, I semi-retired by dissolving my business and cutting my weekly hours to about 55 a week. We work hard, long, and often inconsistent hours. One of the main focuses over the last few years is to adjust the hours of service to some sort of circadian rhythm. The hours of service basically allow us to drive up to 11 hours in a 14-hour period. Then we have to take a 10-hour break. The trucks’ movements are monitored be an electronic logging device. In some ways, these logging devices were the government recognizing that we have health issue within the industry – finally.
If one were to take a moment to Google truck driver life expectancy, you’ll see that it isn’t great. For decades the number was estimated at around 61. Ray LaHood, the former Secretary of Transportation, quoted that number in a blog. I had used it repeatedly. The CDC even acknowledged it.
The problem was that a federal study for trucker life expectancy never existed. We don’t know what the actual number is. We have estimates, by averaging the ages of career driver on death certificates. According to a 2010 article in Heavy Duty Trucking, the teamsters average was 63. When OOIDA (Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association) did their numbers in 2003 it was 55.7.
Truckers Final Mile (truckersfinalmile.org) is a charity organization that works to assist families of deceased drivers to return their remains home if they die on the road. Not only do these families have to grieve the loss, but they also must find a way to bring their loved ones home. They have assisted 427 families since May 2014. In 2022 they have helped a total of 35 families so far. The average age of the deceased was 49.5.
A long-term trucking career just isn’t healthy. We know the reasons why. We cope with the long hours driving and waiting. Stress from loads that are loaded late but need to be delivered on time. Paid by the mile, regulated by the hour, and dictated by the weather. The stress from dealing with these things helps lead to obesity, smoking, irregular sleep patterns, long stressful hours, and bad eating habits, which contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes, and other maladies that take driver’s lives young.
If we are going to retain more commercial drivers and close the labor gap in this essential industry, we need to start with a realistic study on drivers’ health and life expectancy. Get a number. Deal with facts and data, not judgments.
At the same time, we need to adjust the actuarial tables for social security. Right now, not only are truck drivers hauling the freight, we are also saving social security as well. We are working, paying into it, then dying somewhere between the age of having dependent children and collecting retirement benefits.
If we are to incentivize drivers to stay in the industry, we can start by having a viable retirement plan that will encourage drivers to stay in the profession long term. Gone are the days where most Americans stay with a company for 30 years and then retire. In my industry we are lucky if they stay one year. Our pension plans must be mobile. Having a non-transferable plan with a company just isn’t going to work.
Adjusting drivers’ social security benefits is about more than fairness. It also benefits all other Americans at home and on the road. Right now, there are a lot of inexperienced drivers out there. When you’re on the highway in your 4,000-pound car, do you want the person driving that 80,000-pound rig behind you to be a rookie? It is a good idea to retain experienced drivers.
One retirement formula that I have seen is the rule of 85. Say a driver starts at 25 and works for 30 years. That driver will be 55 after 30 years. Age plus time served equals 85 and that would make that driver eligible for social security benefits. We would like to see that driver keep driving. The system is already in place where a person who starts collecting social security benefits at 62 can work part-time and not pay confiscatory rates on earned income. Once we reach full retirement, we can earn more and not pay those confiscatory rates. That seems fair and would help encourage drivers to keep driving long term.
Changing the social security payouts might be a pipe dream, but honestly reexamining it will have payoffs that benefit everyone involved – the drivers, the companies, and the public at large. If we want to close the labor gap in the industry, we need to start by counteracting the long-term health effects of trucking. Can we please start there?
Jeff is a veteran of the trucking and logistics industry. He earned a BA degree in Business Administration from Governors State University. He did this by going to school at night and working in warehousing during the day.
He has been a professional truck driver for 32 years. For 17 of those years, Jeff owned Clark Trucking. Along the way, he started running. He has finished 11 marathons. Been featured in Runners World magazine and been written about in several newspapers including the Chicago Tribune. He is an advocate for drivers especially when it comes to their health issues.
Jeff had steady writing jobs from 2008 – 2018. He had written monthly columns for Drivers Health and Truckers News magazines until joining Freightliner’s Team Run Smart in 2012. While writing for Freightliner Jeff was also able to drive the newest, safest, and most efficient trucks on the market. Jeff always joked that his specialty was translating between driver and engineer.
Jeff left Freightliner and Team Run Smart in 2018. It was just time to start easing into retirement. He wanted to work less and write when he wanted.