What’s Causing America’s Truck-Driver Shortage, According to One Driver

A veteran driver shares his theories, and stories from his decades on the road.

A man leans out of the window of a large truck with a blue and yellow cab.
Dariusz Matejko on the road in 1989 (Courtesy of Dariusz Matejko)

About the author: Sonya Matejko is a writer and the founder of A Force of Nurture.

My dad has been a long-haul truck driver since 1989, after he left Communist Poland in search of a better life in the United States. He’s spent thousands of days on the road.

Growing up, I didn’t see much of my dad. He was home one week and then gone for four, on the road for 270 days each year. As a young girl, I didn’t appreciate his job the way I should have or recognize why he wasn’t going to be home on Thanksgiving. I didn’t call enough or understand the importance of “family time” on the days he was home.

As an adult, I’m making up for lost time. Today, I couldn’t have more respect for what he does, and I’ve started to ask more questions—about what he’s seen and where he’s gone. After three decades of truck driving, my dad has hundreds of stories worth telling.

The U.S. is in the midst of a years-long shortage of truck drivers that is contributing to national supply-chain problems. Last week, the Biden administration released a plan it hopes will alleviate the shortage by making it easier to become a trucker, improving truckers’ quality of life, and encouraging experienced truckers to stay in the business longer. Recently, I asked my dad to tell me a little about his life, and explain his theories about the causes of the driver shortage. Here’s his story.

—  Sonya Matejko

After leaving Communist Poland in 1987, I made my way to Florida. I held a series of odd jobs while I found my footing: painting the outside of a church in Clearwater, fixing houses around the Tampa Bay area. In 1989, I bought my first vehicle, which was a semitruck. After four weeks of training, I set out for my first long-haul drive from Indianapolis to Atlanta. I’ve been on the road ever since.

When I first started moving people’s households across the country, I was still new to the United States (18.6 percent of truck drivers in America are immigrants), and I felt lucky to have the opportunity to see the country. In just the first three years, I drove through every continental state. I soaked up the scenery and got to know each state by its roads—collecting 450 city maps before GPS became available.

Over the past three decades, I’ve driven 5 million miles, spent 8,640 days on the road, helped more than 2,000 customers, and listened to more than 600 audiobooks.

Photos from the driving on the road.
Photos from the road in 1989 (left) and 2021 (right) (Courtesy of Dariusz Matejko)

I’ve moved presidents of companies, celebrity athletes, military families, and many fascinating characters. One customer I always think about fondly is the person who met me at the truck stop to have breakfast with me before guiding me to his mansion in the Pittsburgh area. He was a kind customer, on top of being the owner of one of the largest food companies in the world. He told his butler to keep the food and drinks coming and made his kids help move items with me. Even after I told him they couldn’t, he said he wanted them to experience hard work.

One time an art collector in New Jersey booked my entire trailer. All he had were 30 crates and a vintage Mercedes Cabriolet. I couldn’t help my curiosity, so I asked him about the crates, and he told me one of them held a chair once owned by George Washington. But even that wasn’t nearly as interesting as when I transported a mummy. From Florida to California, I drove terrified that the mummy would come alive. When I delivered it to the private collector, he asked me and my crew to open it, and I thought he was joking. (He wasn’t.) I told him I was only there to deliver, and I quickly got the heck out of there.

Though trucking certainly has its entertaining stories, it is not an easy job. Each trip consists of anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 pounds in your trailer that you need to load and unload—sometimes carrying it up three flights of stairs by hand. And sometimes that load includes a grand piano or a safe that requires renting special equipment just to move it. The job can involve many 11-hour days and driving hundreds of miles on Christmas.

Sometimes, I have to rent a smaller truck for homes in hard-to-get-to areas and move everything from one trailer into another … and then offload everything again. Most years, I’m on the road for 270 days. I miss holidays, doctor’s appointments, and birthdays. In the summertime, I sweat through four shirts a day and am constantly out of breath. I eat alone more than I eat with my family. I have to keep customers calm during one of life’s most stressful times. And I often carry more than I can manage—both physically and figuratively.

Thankfully, today I have people I can rely on across the country for help. But in the early days, I didn’t know anyone. Sometimes I would go to a police station or fire department and ask if anyone wanted to earn extra cash and help with a load. They always showed up.

Now the country faces a significant shortage of truck drivers, and I have a few theories as to why. One of the biggest reasons is that drivers are older than workers in general. At the company I work for, the average age of drivers is 60 years old, and many are starting to retire. And you just don’t see younger people on the road. For the young folks I do see, they try it for a short time and then quit. And I get it; it’s hard work, and it’s hard not to be home every night.

It takes time to get comfortable driving long distances and being gone for long stretches. Eventually, you get used to it, but you can’t hide from loneliness on the road. Some drivers have cats (I saw someone with four in his truck) to counter loneliness, and others drive with their wife. For me, I listen to audiobooks. But even the best book can’t replace human connection.

The shortage could be due to any number of other reasons. Maybe the lack of healthy food options on the road, or even the roads themselves, have discouraged people from taking up driving. (Some states are harder to drive through than others.) Or maybe the growing supply-chain crisis is making it difficult for drivers to repair their trucks or get serviced. When I get my oil changed now, I have to call ahead to make sure they even have the materials to do it.

Maybe the shortage is because people have misconceptions about who truck drivers are. I’ve heard various stereotypes here and there, and none of them stands up to the facts. Truck drivers are hardworking people away from their families, trying to earn money, and they have demanding jobs.

For one, you have to learn how to drive a semi, which isn’t easy. You’re pressured to get things delivered on time, regardless of the conditions or whether there’s a global pandemic. You deal with constant weather challenges, such as dodging hurricanes in Florida, fending off sandstorms in Arizona, or driving past tornadoes in Texas. You also deal with traffic and accidents on a near-daily basis.

And with all this frustration and the hard manual labor, the pay isn’t enough—another glaring reason I think there’s a shortage.

Yet, even taking all of that into consideration, truck drivers still always help one another out. For the past 32 years, any time I’ve broken down, a line of three or four trucks has stopped behind me within 30 minutes to see if I was okay. That says a lot.

Truck drivers show up for one another. We show up for our customers. And we show up for the loved ones for whom we do it all. Truck driving might not be everyone’s version of the American dream, but it has been mine. It has allowed me to support my family, put both my kids through college, and travel across this beautiful country.

It also gave me the freedom to build something from nothing and become the driver of my own life. It’s a tough gig, but I am proud to be behind the wheel. And no matter how hard it gets or how many days I spend away, I keep packing up your trailer, mummy and all, and I keep hitting the road, knowing that, eventually, that road will lead me home.