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A dangerous game


Quarterly turnover at large US truckload fleets rose to an annualized rate of 97% during the first quarter, according to the latest American Trucking Associations’ Trucking Activity Report. Smaller truckload fleets were slightly “better off” with a turnover rate of 82%.

After more than 20 years of reading such numbers, it still never ceases to amaze me how so many in our industry have come to accept them as the norm; part of the cost of doing business in trucking.

Now I know that LTL turnover rates are much lower; Canadian turnover rates for either LTL or TL are not as high as that experienced in the US, and actually showed improvement just before the recession. But the reality is that drivers remain a precious commodity which the industry by and large has yet to figure out how to retain. More than two-thirds of driver turnover is attributable to drivers quitting their jobs.

The many letters to the editor we receive from drivers usually point to low pay as a main reason for quitting. Before the recession, when fleets had several years of rising rates to bolster their finances, domestic and international longhaul drivers were earning between $40,943 and $69,640 annually with the average salary being $55,797.

Almost every major fleet executive I speak to these days talks about the need to do boost driver pay. But with rate increases being as meagre as they have been during this slow recovery, how much flexibility do fleets really have to address driver pay in a meaningful way?

I don’t have the solution myself and I’ve yet to hear a good answer from anyone else. But I do know the industry is running out of time to figure it out. That’s because the driver pool has developed far too many leaks.

Consider that data from the 2011 National Household Survey indicates that the average truck driver age is now 46 years. Only 8.5% of drivers are in the 30 to 34 age group and only 8.8% are in the 20-29 age group. Meanwhile, drivers aged 55 and older make up more than a quarter of the driver pool and the number of drivers aged 65 and up is on the rise.

As Vijay Gill, principal research associate at the Conference Board of Canada points out: for the trucking industry, more than in others, ‘new’ sources of labour are delayed retirements. Which is nothing more than a “bandage solution.”

As an industry we can continue to recruit 40 year olds rather than 25-year olds. We can continue to live with high turnover rates as a cost to doing business. But sooner rather than later the numbers will catch up with this game and it won’t be pretty. Every 40 year old potentially has 25 years of driving left, whereas a 25 year old potentially has 40 years. In the long run then, for every 25 year old that the industry does not recruit, it will have to recruit close to two 40 year olds. And retain them.

Forty year olds bring the advantage of experience and maturity to their driving careers. But they expect better pay and are less willing to put up with nonsense.


Lou Smyrlis

Lou Smyrlis

With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.
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7 Comments » for A dangerous game
  1. Doug B says:

    Within the last year in the U.S., the average driver pay was less than $40.000. There are plenty of driver adds here in Canada offering 16 to 17 dollars per hour. Drivers may be a commodity, just not as precious as you claim, Lou.

    Driver are treated like pawns. Just a tool of the trade to most carriers. Sure, most drivers are treat well on a personal level, but not from a financial standpoint. After-all, without drivers, the freight stops, and so does the gravy train.

    Most long-haul drivers put 80 or more hours into a weeks work, just to make the same money as a single income worker. That’s twice the time most people work. Not to mention all the family activities and social events they miss out on.

    It’s about time the industry took a look at what’s really going on when it comes to turnover rates. Who really wants to work double time for a single wage? Truck drivers give up so much to keep our countries moving.

  2. Harry Rudolfs says:

    As a career company driver, I’ve never had the slightest urge to own my own iron–leave that to the cowboys and the hustlers…But I did get stuck in a low-paying driving job because I liked the people I worked with. Some truckers are just loyal dogs. Also it was easier to just go to work everyday. The pay wasn’t great, and it was a lot of back breaking work, lifting every piece on to a set of rollers, 35,000 lbs or so per load…

    What got me moving was that the owner of the agency wanted to please his clients and enrolled everyone in a urine testing program. What? This agency paid on the low end, (hypocritically enough didn’t even have a health and safety committee), and they want my body fluids? Further, I’m going to potentially end up on some kind of industry blacklist if I refuse, or heaven forbid, have a pull on a reefer that’s being passed around at Rob Ford’s back yard BBQ. This was a dumb move on his part since almost all of his drivers were provincial and domestic and he didn’t have to go this route. He dropped the idea soon afterward. But it was then,and still is, the rhetoric of the day, thank you Ronald Reagan, but that’s another rant.

    Soon after, I heard that a top private fleet was hiring and got on there pulling trains. Over the next 15 years I signed on to a succession of jobs and always went gunning for the best paying ones. Truckers are no exception. Just like the rest of working folks, no one has a job for life as in our parents or grandparents time–one company went bankrupt, another third-partied the transport department, another wanted us to buy our trucks (see ya later), etc.

    So at 59, I’m in the last phase of my driving career and no expert on driver retention, but it seems to me that the good drivers will gravitate to the good jobs and that’s always been the case. I liked the comment on here a few weeks ago, that any company that remunerates its drivers properly doesn’t have to bother with a recruiting department. So CEOs, CFOs, pres and vices: PUT UP YOUR PAY PACKETS, GET RID OF YOUR RECRUITERS, Drivers will come knocking on your door–the good ones at least.

  3. Francis says:

    The Labour code in reality requires an employer to pay overtime whether they are paid by the hour, by the truck load or by the mile. This also applies to statutory holidays, yet many drivers work them for straight time wages.
    Yet this is sadly ignored and the low wages continue.
    It is like everything else, if you want good quality, professional workers, you must pay them accordingly. There can be allowances made for perks to take the place of a high hourly rate. This would help retain workers to a much better degree than we currently see.
    I don’t understand why companies seem willing to put up with drivers who are unshaven, bad breath and dressed like bums, smelly and clearly clueless at some aspects of their job. For example, driving with courtesy, backing up a trailer, etc. Yet these workers are the face of the company they represent, and I see a very high degree of unprofessionalism. What does that say about the company that employs such drivers or owner operators??
    I was a truck driver for over 30 years, I left the industry due to low wages, long hours and a lack of commitment by my employer in assisting me to enjoy a quality of life with my family. I still have my class one, I still enjoy driving and would consider returning to the business if an employer would value the years and accident free driving record I have.
    I suspect many companies would happily offshore driving the truck remotely if it could be done. Anything to save a dime. And thus, look at the state were in.

  4. meslippery says:

    Harry works for a union company and gets overtime after what 9 hours a day
    Harry? if we all got paid that well then this would all be a non issue….(Good rate Too).

  5. Joy says:

    If I win the 649, I’ll buy me a Long-nosed Pete and keep on truckin’ til the money runs out! Otherwise I’ll stay in the Safety Dept and I should be able to retire at 80.

    • dale says:

      If I won 649,i would buy me a Long-nosed Pete and park it on my front lawn,and every morning I would go and piss all over it before I went fishing!!!

  6. Angelo Diplacido says:

    Right makes Might. There are still companies that will pay for professionals and insist on nothing less. I was a doubting Thomas for years until I found that company. Performance based and drivers are well rewarded for hard work. No ones going to pay top dollar for a driver to haul a load of toilet paper to Montreal. Some companies have a low 10% turn-over,don’t use temp agencies, and don’t have trouble getting drivers. It has long been touted that drivers are the ambassadors to the company. A reflection of their hiring practices and diligence. If you’re looking for that company … look for the over the road etiquette from the driver. I can only see a handful out here that I would consider.

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