Convincing more minorities to become truck drivers is viewed as but one of many recruiting and retention challenges by a panel of fleet executives. (Photo: Sean Worrell/U.S. Air Force)

Demographics are changing truck driver management

Sept. 20, 2017
Fleet panel highlights the need to adjust to a younger and more inexperienced driver pool made up of more women and ethnic minorities.

As the “traditional” make-up of the U.S. truck driver population is rapidly aging and heads for retirement, new efforts must be made to attract younger and “non-traditional” candidates to the job of piloting commercial vehicles for a living. That's according to a panel of trucking executives at the McLeod Software 2017 User Conference in Atlanta this week.

It's going to require new approaches to driver recruiting and retention by motor carriers – especially in terms of higher pay, more personal outreach, plus more family and spousal contact to help alleviate the stress created when drivers spend long stretches away from home on the road.

“It comes down to wages and lifestyle,” explained Clay Murdoch, president of Doug Andrus Distributing, which operates a fleet of 207 trucks. “We have to level with people that they are coming into one of the most difficult jobs they’ve ever had. For example, we had a cook who hated his job come to us to be a truck driver. But after just six weeks on the road he went back to a job he hated because of the stress.”

Yet Randy Seals, customer advocate at McLeod Software and moderator of the panel, stressed that based on the current trends lines of freight demand versus driver availability, a potential shortfall of 239,000 drivers may develop by 2022.

And that means trucking companies must look “outside the box” for new recruits and for ways to retain them for the long term, he emphasized.  

Out of a population of 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. – 3.1 million of whom are commercial driver’s license (CDL) holders – some 38.75% are minorities and 6% are women, according to data compiled by the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

Some 66.6% of the truck driver population is currently made up of white males, based on 2014 data, followed by Hispanic men at 14.6%, men of other nationalities at 14.8%, and females at 6%.

Yet the white males making up the largest portion of the driver population are starting to “age out” of the industry, Seals noted. According to ATA data, the average age of a private fleet truck drive is now 52, followed by 50 at LTL carriers, 49 and TL carriers and 47 at drayage operators.

Photo: U.S. Air Force

All in all, the average age of a truck driver now hovers around 49, he said; seven years more than the age of the average U.S. worker overall.

That, said Seals, means motor carriers must adjust to recruiting from a “younger, more inexperienced, and more diverse” pool of workers.

“We need to embrace the diverse ethnicity of the current workforce and bring more women into the industry as well,” he noted.

Yet it also comes down to money as well, Seals stressed – and in many ways the trucking industry doesn’t have it. “We need to get more involved with shippers and consignees to help us find ways to adequately pay folks to do this job commensurate with its demanding work,” he pointed out.

Seals added that, based on 2014 data, the average U.S. worker salary hovered around $46,500 while a truck driver’s annual salary sat at $42,000.

Add to that the currently low unemployment level in the U.S. and competition from better-paying blue collar jobs – work that does not require someone to be away from home for weeks at a time – and the truck driver recruiting/retention challenge gets even tough, said Doug Andrus’ Murdoch.

“Right now in Idaho where we are based, unemployment is at 2.5% and we’re competing with plumbers, house framers and others for workers,” he explained – adding that annual truck driver pay should really hover between $70,000 and $90,000.

“About 95% of the problem is money,” emphasized Mike Marquardt of Birchwood Foods, which operates 50 trucks. “If the industry can support a higher wage that then supports a better lifestyle for drivers and their families.”

But Steve Hoekstra, owner of 100-truck operator Hoekstra Transportation, said the nature of the truck driver’s job can be a bigger-than-anticipated hurdle in terms of recruiting younger workers.

“The nature of the job is why it’s not attractive to millennials; the time away from home on the road,” he said.

Carol Millam, safety manager for Amhof Trucking, which operates 75 trucks, said one way her fleet is trying to overcome that obstacle is to pair up older drivers with younger recruits as part of a mentoring program – a teacher/student relationship she said often helps with retention among Amhof’s retain older drivers as well, as they enjoy sharing their accumulated trucking knowledge.

“Millennials are so different from the drivers of yesteryear; they need help getting used to the lifestyle,” Millam said. “Their partners, spouses, and families are also not used to it, so we try to involve them as well. We need to pay more attention to the driver’s family as well as to the drivers themselves.”

Doug Andrus’ Murdoch added that effort includes more personal engagement with drivers as well.

“I’ve found that if you give a driver’s a pay raise, most will say ‘well, it’s about time.’ But send them a birthday card with two movie tickets inside and it’s a very different story, with ‘thank you’ emails and Qualcomm messages,” he said. “We need to know their birthdays, their kids’ names, everything about them now.”

But all the fleet executives participating on the panel stressed repeatedly that shippers, receivers and consignees must recognize the outsized role they play in helping make driving a truck a more attractive job.

“They must offer places for drivers to rest, relax, get a Coca-Cola, go to bathroom and park overnight,” Murdoch noted – in addition to paying higher freight rates that will then allow motor carriers to beef up driver pay.

“Shippers and receivers also have to execute better,” emphasized Birchwood Foods’ Marquardt. “With ELDs [electronic logging devices] now coming on, they have to make better [loading and unloading] plans. That’s the only way it will work.”

“Drivers don’t want detention pay; they want to keep moving and to be productive,” said Hoekstra. “So there are a lot of areas where shippers can contribute. They have to think about how they would like to be treated and act accordingly. That will go a long way to making the job of driving a truck more attractive. Because people don’t leave jobs; they leave relationships. We need to make truck driving a tougher relationship to leave.”

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