Trucking industry at a crossroads

Jill Quinn Headshot Headshot
Updated Jun 16, 2022

Tthe trucking industry is today in the public eye far more than it has been in recent years.

As a critical link in the supply chain, trucking has been a hot-button topic in the media throughout the pandemic. All this attention means that truck driving as a profession is now being considered with more respect and appreciation, as both an irreplaceable part of the economy and a source of growth for people entering the workforce. But the COVID-19 pandemic is weighing heavily on trucking and transportation, leaving truckers stressed. These same drivers are now literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat to push their industry to a new level — but are employers ready to listen and change?  

Centerline Drivers last year surveyed both truck drivers and business owners to gain insights about the transportation industry, and these are the key takeaways about the state of trucking today. 

Pay boom or pay bust?  

Competition, inflation and the growing e-commerce sector all caused significant raises in wage rates among drivers — particularly in the past year. However, 55% of drivers still don’t think pay is competitive enough. Rising wage rates are almost nullified by inflation in some parts of the country, and while 68% of employers plan to step up and increase wages this year (compared to only 44% in 2021), these increases are nominal, only $1 or 2 per hour.

Wages remain a primary attractor for employees, as well as a motivator for performance. By raising wages (not to mention improving benefits and incentives) trucking companies can recruit the best workers and keep them happy and productive in their tasks. In the long run, higher wages are an investment in higher profits, as more productive and dedicated drivers will create fewer problems and more positive results. 

Driver well-being

Support for wage hikes is unsurprising given the significant toll that trucking takes on drivers’ day-to-day lives, particularly these last few years of increased demand and strict oversight. Healthcare professionals have been at the forefront of the burnout conversation in the wake of COVID-19, but critical workers like truck drivers deserve equal attention in broader national conversations about burnout and fatigue.  

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Health and well-being are finding increasing attention across the industry, as many truckers report suffering ailments due to driving. Nearly half (49%) of drivers claim the sedentary nature of sitting inside of a truck has caused them to gain unhealthy weight. This weight gain is compounded with poor nutrition as 35% of drivers resort to eating fast food due to the demands of the road. Truckers also cite knee, back and shoulder issues from sitting in cramped driver seats for long periods of time.  

While many drivers try to make mental and physical health a priority (66% strive to eat healthy meals on the road and 62% try to exercise when not driving), it’s not always accessible. And 12% claim they aren’t doing anything to take care of their health.  

Safety is at the forefront of every driver’s mind, and rising safety concerns put pressure on them mentally. The top safety issue for 71% of truckers is being distracted while driving — particularly other drivers being distracted. A whopping 75% feel fatigue is a real problem for drivers, which is on the rise from 2021 when 66% felt this was an issue. Serious fatigue isn’t surprising when drivers report getting only 5 to 7 hours of sleep a night – far below the recommended hours of sleep for adults. This only highlights the weight of the pandemic on drivers’ mental and physical health.  

Like many essential workers, truck drivers have suffered inordinately from the pandemic (38% of drivers have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, whether from catching the virus while driving, needing to take time off to care for ailing loved ones, or even losing family to the disease). Given these losses and impacts, home and family in general are major concerns for drivers, with 38% citing these as their top concerns.  

Time to get creative about recruiting  

Perhaps the most pressing problem for trucking is the difficulty of recruiting new drivers. A majority (72%) of employers say they are having a hard time finding drivers, up from 57% last year. Yet less than 25% are doing anything creative to promote recruitment. Even those who are using creative methods seem to be doing the same old thing: more money for social media, advertising, bonuses, wage increases and standard incentives. New ideas are needed to bring excitement that will entice new drivers. 

One way to bring in new workers is to explore diverse talent pools. Most employers (92%) and even drivers (83%) feel the trucking industry is diverse, yet on average employers say their workforce is less than 10% female. Diversity can mean many things (gender, ethnicity, age, national origin, sexual orientation and more). Given the toll of burnout and mental and physical well-being, there may be an opportunity to set one’s company apart by not only recruiting from a diverse pool but also rewarding recruits with better benefits and support for work-life balance.  

The future is coming fast, but are we ready?  

To attract high school graduates into the trucking profession, the federal government is considering lowering the age requirement of drivers to 18. This is one of several new solutions to the industry’s dilemmas, yet despite this opening up the talent pool considerably, 46% of drivers feel this would be a negative change.  

Ultimately, the companies that thrive will be those who don’t necessarily listen to conventional wisdom. Younger drivers are one idea, but it’s also possible to tap into different talent pools. One nurse recently changed careers into truck driving, and many industries have surprising crossover traits that apply to trucking. Companies could also tap into compatible subculture groups, such as among motorcycle enthusiasts. After all, 21% of truck drivers own motorcycles. 

The bottom line(s) 

The bright future of trucking depends on the bright future of truckers. Those employers who take the best care their employees will ultimately win in the market. Drivers’ pay expectations have grown along with inflation and need, so paying competitively is the best way to draw and retain the best talent. The best leaders will also realize that taking care of a driver means taking care of the whole person, on and off the road. Mental and physical wellness among drivers must be a priority, and programs to better support their needs are critical to keeping drivers productive and safe on the road.  

But first we must ensure we have drivers to take care of. Recruiting has stagnated, with many employers stuck with the same tried and now-less-than-true methods. The industry needs a fundamental shift, and fast. As with other highly competitive spaces, like technology and nursing, diversity is the way forward. Trucking as a whole must expand its appeal to broader audiences, including youth, women and new racial and cultural groups who have already made inroads into the field.  

Employers and drivers alike should embrace change, and fast. As technology becomes more pervasive inside and outside the cab, the industry must adapt while ensuring that truckers stay motivated, healthy and competitive.   

Who is a truck driver, according to Centerline Drivers survey 

  • First generation — the first in their family to enter this career 
  • Have a high school degree or some college education 
  • Listen to R&B and Classic Rock Music  
  • Value independence and pay  
  • Don’t make them team drive! Only 23% said they’d ever want to do that again 
  • Over half are willing to relocate for a driving job opportunity  
  • 7 out of 10 drink coffee  
  • On average, started driving at 31, and plan to retire by age 66 
  • Key motivators: pay, types of routes, and work-life balance  
  • Most have 5+ years of trucking experience  
  • Average age: late 40s to early 50s  
  • Top places on their bucket list to drive: Florida and Alaska 

Jill Quinn is the executive leader of Centerline Drivers and PeopleReady Skilled Trades, driving business growth and performance excellence and cultivating customer partnerships for these two TrueBlue companies. With 25 years of leadership experience, Quinn’s knowledge and expertise ensures that customers receive the skilled tradespeople or qualified drivers they need to keep their businesses moving forward. Her passion for making a difference in people’s lives by connecting them with work has led to many successful partnerships between customers looking to grow and a skilled workforce who deserve great opportunities.