by David Dodson
It's no small problem for a big industry: The drop-out rate among long-haul truck drivers is a whopping 60 percent a year.
And new drivers don't come cheap; it costs $3,000 to $5,000 every time a driver leaves.
Concerned about this alarming situation, Fred Stephenson conducted a nationwide survey in 1995 to find out why truck drivers are so dissatisfied.
"We don't focus enough on the people who do a good job and on keeping them happy," said the University of Georgia marketing and distribution professor. "So we conducted a survey of the ones who are still there to see what it's going to take to keep them employed."
The survey targeted the long-haul business because "that's where the turnover problem is most acute," he said.
Stephenson surveyed for-hire truckers who typically drive cross-country carrying loads from one shipping dock to another. Of the 2,256 surveys distributed, nearly 1,800 drivers responded, making it the second largest driver study ever undertaken with the highest company participation. In all, 57 trucking companies in 26 states were represented.
According to his survey the typical driver is a 35- to 44-year-old male who works between 60 and 70 hours per week and is home about once every two weeks. But he's only making $30,000 to $40,000 per year.
And there's the rub: Compensation was the drivers' overriding concern. Although it is a demanding, blue-collar profession, truck driving carries neither the sentimental appeal of the American farmer nor the typical salary of an electrician, plumber or railroad engineer.
"Pay and benefits were almost universally given the highest scores in importance, even by the tank truck drivers who earn the most right now," Stephenson said. "Most of these drivers are in the prime of their earning years and are facing high family costs like college tuition. They're worried about making ends meet and improving their lives."
Deregulation in the early 1980s created wide-open competition and truck carriers felt pressure to hold the line on costs.
And a salary solution may not be forthcoming anytime soon. "Trucking companies can't raise pay unless shippers are willing to accept that there's a problem and rates may go up a little bit," he said.
But there are other avenues of relief for the truck-driver blues. "When we looked at the top 10 driver needs, more than half were concerns like trust, respect, appreciation and pride issues that are so much cheaper to solve than wage problems," he said.
At the University of Georgia's annual trucking profitability conference, Stephenson offered some solutions to the retention problem:
"We take this $340 billion industry for granted. I'm trying to help people understand that it's very important that trucking is a crucial industry in this country," Stephenson said. "Practically everything you have in your home, everything you eat, all the clothes you wear and cars you buy were brought to you by trucks."