These changes caused the high levels of turnover and low pay that have characterized the industry for more than three decades now. The industry’s solution has been to settle on a system that shifts risks and costs to more-experienced workers and delays their exit to better paying segments of the industry, or from the industry all together.
Contracting, then, is presented to drivers with the promise of fantastic salaries and greater control, but it often falls short, and working as a driver is harder than those outside the industry likely appreciate. That’s something I learned firsthand. Before I interviewed truckers as a researcher, I took a job as a long-haul trucker so I would understand a little about what the job was like.
Trucks are, for lack of a better word, cool. I played with them as a kid and still remember one particular black Freightliner with a square nose and external air cleaner—a big, shiny cylinder that sticks out from the side of some old models. That one was made by Matchbox and was, with its box trailer, somewhere around four inches long.
The real things are 70 feet long and can weigh up to 80,000 pounds, and they can and should be terrifying to the untrained. I got my training through a company-operated Commercial Driver Licensing school that charged me $3,500. (Nearly all workers who enter the industry start at such a school, or in a private or public community-college program.) When I first got behind the wheel, everything was different than I had imagined. The steering wheel is 20 inches in diameter, requiring wide-sweeping, hand-over-hand motions to turn it. The end of the trailer is so far away that it feels like it’s on time delay—when reversing slowly, the effect of a quarter turn of the wheel isn’t registered by the tail for about five seconds. As for stopping the rig at high speeds, the theoretical limits they talk about in training programs are something any driver would be happy not to witness in practice.
All this makes for very physical labor. This is a vehicle that has to be climbed up into. And then the work is remarkably tangible: Drivers pick up 40,000 lbs of something people have over here and drive it to where people need it over there. They are working when the sun comes up and when it goes down, having covered hundreds of miles in the meantime. There are no bosses, and no office politics—it’s like being a modern-day cowboy. And what a view from the office window.
Long-haul truckers doing the work I did are the least experienced truckers—the sort that only the biggest companies can afford to train and insure. New drivers make about $35,000 a year. (Somewhat more experienced drivers working for the large-truckload dry-van companies hauling everything from beer to diapers to Xboxes might make about $45,000 a year.)
So, truck driving has its appeal—for a few months anyway. The money is better than many workers can earn in service jobs, but in most cases that’s only because they are working the equivalent of two full-time jobs. There are laws that are supposed to limit how much drivers work, and they record their hours on paper or in an electronic log. The rules are complicated, but limit drivers’ working hours to roughly 60 hours per week. But those laws aren’t effective, partly because 90 percent of the typical driver’s compensation is based on the number of miles they drive, so they only count the hours they absolutely have to. While the number of hours they spend driving on public roads is counted relatively accurately, many, many of the hours drivers work are spent waiting while their trucks are loaded and unloaded, and doing all kinds of unpaid, non-driving work that ranges from filling out paperwork to fueling their truck. Considering all the unpaid work drivers are putting in, they tend to earn little more than minimum wage. Over the four months I spent on the road, I averaged less than $10 per hour worked.