When Robots Take Bad Jobs

Maybe it’s a good thing the trucking industry is ripe for automation.

Workers at Otto, Uber's self-driving truck company
Workers at Otto, Uber's self-driving truck company (Tony Avelar / AP)

INDIANAPOLIS—James Ford worked at various printing presses for decades, eventually becoming head pressman at a bookbinding shop in Michigan. But the industry was changing, and as the work required fewer and fewer people, he searched around for his next career. He settled on truck driving.

“I want to see America and get paid for it,” he told me in December, in the cafeteria of Celadon Driving Academy, where he was completing a six-week driving course in order to get his commercial driver’s license (CDL). Celadon, which is also a trucking company, offers a job to everyone who completes the school and receives a commercial driver’s license.

Ford is one of thousands of workers going through schools like Celadon, which promise to get people out on the road and into employment in short order. Every year, the trucking industry makes a big push to recruit new workers like Ford, bemoaning a driver shortage in a booming industry.

There’s a reason the industry has trouble finding workers: The jobs are low-paid and grueling. Average compensation for a new driver ranges between $35,000 and $45,000 a year, and truckers spend long weeks away from their families, often doing tasks for which they don’t get paid, waiting for loads or delivery appointments. Workers for many companies last, on average, six months, according to Steve Viscelli, the author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. Some manage to stick it out for a full year, but often only because they owe the trucking schools tuition money plus interest, he said. The 800,000 or so workers employed by long-haul truckload carriers are often classified as independent contractors and are barely making ends meet.

“The job is terrible, and the companies know it,” Viscelli told me. “It’s brutal on your family, on your body, on your life.” Viscelli says that turnover at some of these companies is 300 percent, meaning the companies hire three people for one job over the course of a year. (Trucking jobs working for specific brands, such as Budweiser, are much different, he said, because they pay much better and treat their workers as employees, not contractors.)

Celadon spokesman Joe Weigel told me he thinks people entering the industry know what they’re in for. “They understand that it’s not an office job sitting behind a desk and that being a driver can be physically exhausting,” he wrote, in an email. Celadon tries to make drivers more comfortable, by outfitting trucks with comforts like refrigerators and auxiliary power units for controlling cabin temperature. The company, which trains people and then employs them, has a turnover rate of 125 percent, he said.

James Ford studying in Celadon’s cafeteria (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

In not too long, these jobs may be a thing of the past. The White House released a report in December predicting that 1.3 million to 1.7 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck-driving jobs could disappear because of automation. That’s 80 to 100 percent of all truck-driving jobs. Though the White House did not specify over what time period this replacement would take place, some of the technology that will automate truck driving is already in use. In 2015, Daimler received permission to test a self-driving truck, the Freightliner Inspiration, on Nevada roads. A truck from Otto, Uber’s self-driving truck division, delivered cans of Budweiser to Colorado Springs in October. David Alexander, an analyst with Navigant Research, anticipates that most truck companies will gradually introduce automated driving technology in the next five to 10 years.

New jobs will emerge as a result. But they will essentially be in a different field—technology. Autonomous trucks use sensors and a navigation system to drive on the road. They brake independently and use radars and cameras to navigate around other vehicles. Alexander, of Navigant, says that automated trucks will still need people in these trucks, at least at first. But the jobs will be for people who can handle these systems’ on-board computers and fix problems that arise. “It will be less involved with physically driving the truck, and more with monitoring the truck,” he said.

Trucking companies are also experimenting with something called platooning, which is when vehicles use automated driving technology to drive closer to each other than they would with human operators, saving fuel costs and reducing emissions. The trucks talk to each other, slowing down when the lead truck slows down, speeding up when the lead one speeds up, without needing to read brake lights or other signs humans might use. Eventually, one driver in this group of trucks could operate the whole platoon, Alexander said. This driver would need to be more skilled than the drivers who currently operate one truck at a time.

This dynamic is at the core of automation: It doesn’t just get rid of jobs. It creates new jobs as well. Often, the jobs that disappear are low-paid, repetitive work and the new jobs are better, at least as measured by compensation. But the problem is that those new jobs are not ones that those low-skilled workers can easily fill, and those people are now out of luck. This, in turn, exacerbates inequality, said James Bessen, a lecturer at the Boston University School of Law who studies innovation.

“The people who can use the computers are seeing their wages rise,” he said. “The people who are not—their jobs are being taken away.”

Trucking hasn’t always been a hard-scrabble life. In the 1960s, the profession provided good, stable, unionized, blue-collar jobs. But in the 1980s, the federal government began deregulating the industry, according to Michael Belzer, an expert in the trucking industry and a professor at Wayne State University. Deregulation led to deunionization, wages fell, and a crop of new companies emerged that paid workers less and expected more out of them.

As the good trucking jobs disappeared, companies needed to replace the experienced drivers who left the industry or found jobs with niche firms that treated them well, Viscelli said. Trucking schools started popping up around the country. The schools, like Celadon, often promise good wages for people like James Ford with no experience whatsoever.

These schools advertise heavily on television and online, promoting the field as a place where people with no experience can find a career. Today, hundreds of thousands of workers still pour into “CDL mills,” as Viscelli calls the schools. Often, tuition is subsidized by the government via Pell Grants or Workforce Investment Act funds. “The public is basically subsidizing turnover,” Viscelli said.

Celadon trucks advertise for the school in Indianapolis (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Many of these new drivers, Viscelli says, think they’re going to earn a lot of money as a trucker, something they soon learn is not the case. Though trucking firms advertise starting salaries around $60,000, truckers with less than two years of experience actually earn around $30,000, according to Viscelli. Weigel, the Celadon spokesman, said that new drivers who complete a year of driving make $50,000 and up. Beginning drivers make anywhere from 21 cents to 25 cents a mile, he said, which amounts to about $25,000 to $30,000 a year. They’re paid less because they are in essence repaying the company for their schooling, which is tuition-free but includes housing. Graduates have to drive 120,000 miles at the lower pay rate, or owe the company $5,600. (They can get to 120,000 miles more quickly if they work as “team drivers,” essentially sharing the truck with another worker and resting while the other person is driving, covering more ground.)

In recent years, as trucks with automatic transition and gear management came online, the industry has hired lower and lower-skilled people, paying them even less than before. “Technology has enabled lower-skill drivers that [companies] can pay less money,” Belzer said.

These lower-skilled drivers are the ones who will likely be replaced first by automation. There’s a sense in which that’s not entirely a bad thing. “It’s good riddance to a lot of very bad jobs,” Viscelli, who worked as a trucker while researching his book, told me.

Of course, the automation of trucking is going to create some very real pain for the truckers who like their jobs, and who are treated very well by their employers.

But there’s a hopeful story here too. Rather than using government funds to get a commercial driver’s license, workers could be encouraged into fields where jobs will be in demand not just for a few years, but for much longer. It’s hard to know what those jobs are: The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that many of the jobs that will most grow between 2014 and 2024 will be in the healthcare field. But there will certainly be growth across sectors in computer-based jobs—coding schools are popping up across the Midwest, for example, helping people train for in-demand jobs in fields where developers are needed. Many of these jobs are better than trucking, in that they pay more and the lifestyle is not as demanding.

As America’s experience with manufacturing taught us, the country has not been particularly good at anticipating and responding to the changes wrought by automation. Millions of manufacturing jobs have been lost in the past two decades to automation, and yet few of the workers who lost these jobs have been equipped to move to a new field, or to a new region of the country where new jobs are being created. It does not appear that trucking will turn out any better.