Dave MacMillan is an owner-operator based in Parry Sound, Ontario who has spent most of his 40-year driving career hauling produce from California. Currently, he drives a lumber truck locally and is paid by the hour. When the lumber hauling season is over he will study the rates and decide if he wants to put his truck back on the road or leave the business altogether. He explains why the industry has trouble attracting and keeping drivers. His wife Catherine MacMillan runs the website www.smart-trucking.com.
"The driver shortage is bad, and it will continue to get worse," says MacMillan. "You can't attract young people to this industry anymore. When I was a kid all I ever wanted to do was drive a truck. Now, you look at this industry and you think, 'Geeze, I may stay away from home almost all year long, in and out, and only make $30,000. Or, I can go into construction, be home every night, and make $50,000.' It's not much of a choice."
He rejects the industry's notion, however, that being home at night or on weekends will solve most of the shortage problem. He notes that some fisherman, for example, are willing to be away from home for long stretches of time because the high pay makes the hardship worthwhile. The same goes for military contractors working overseas in dangerous places or salespeople who are on the road most of the time. "Look at the guys who go crab fishing in the Bering Sea. It's for the money. If you get paid enough money then it's worth it. I was quite content to be out driving weeks at a time because at the end of a few weeks I was grossing $20,000," he says. "Back in the mid-80s, I would do two trips to California and make $20,000 [before expenses]. It was good pay at the time, certainly enough to make me do it year-in, year-out, and it wasn't that long ago."
MacMillan adds that the pay issue is not always about how much money someone makes but the consistency of income. "Being at home matters, of course, but the big problem is not knowing what your paycheck is going to be. When I ran California I knew what my load going out would pay and I knew what my load coming back would pay. I knew what my fuel would be well as my other expenses. It was a lot easier to budget. But there are guys now that cross their fingers and hope that the people with the computers will send them on a long trip so they make money. It's a crap shoot."
How do you attract and keep professional drivers? "I think the only way is to pay drivers by the hour, because there's so much time lost in transportation that paying by the mile just doesn't cut it. You spend so much time in traffic or sitting at shippers and receivers who abuse your time as a driver. Big carriers continue to pay by the mile, and they get what they pay for. At the end of the day, many of the really good drivers leave the industry because they're not making enough money. This trickles down and you end up with guys that really shouldn't even be on the road."
He also cites the rise of undercutting and commodization for some of the ills that plague the industry. MacMillan used to concentrate on niche markets because the money was good. Now, he says, many of these markets have dried up. "What happens with niche markets is that sooner or later some load broker will come along and say, 'We could do that for half the cost.' They would sell the shipper on saving money and that would be the end of that niche. I couldn't even tell you how many times that's happened to me. You'll even get big carriers undercutting each other, then try to make up for hauling the cheap freight by trimming the drivers' paychecks…the burden for profit is shifted to the driver."
He says that this shift has produced unsafe drivers. It used to be: 'Get it there and get it there safely. Just do the best job you can.' Now it's more of a 'just get it there, and we don't care what you have to go through to do it, and we'll only pay you this.' It's a different industry now.' What's sad is that there are really good carriers out there, but they're often restrained by what other carriers do. You'll see a good carrier, doing the right things, then some fool will come in, slash his rate in half, and the good carrier is forced to respond to it."
MacMillan appreciates the financial sacrifices that a large, public company would have to do in order pay drivers by the hour. "The CEOs of publicly-traded trucking companies answer to shareholders and shareholders look at profit and loss. Big carriers realize that to pay their drivers by the hour would take a huge chunk of their profit out. If they try to sell that to their shareholders, they will look for a new CEO."
MacMillan concludes: "I don't want to sound too harsh here, but it's kind of embarrassing to a lot of us [long-time professional drivers] to see the guys that drive trucks now. We hate to be painted with the same brush, but we are, and you can understand why the public does that. An awful lot of the guys who did this as a profession have left. It's a shame, because it's a good job, really. If you could get paid for what you did, it would be a great job."