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- The deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1980s led to wages being slashed by almost half.
- Truckers are essential infrastructure — by weight, they moved 72% of US freight in 2021.
- A high turnover rate — around 90% for large fleets — is considered a big problem of the industry.
Back in 1980, American truckers earned about $110,000 per year on average. Today, that number is half of that.
According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers earned, on average, $50,340 in 2021. The wage decrease is dizzying, considering how essential the trucking industry is to the US economy, and it is contributing to making trucking a hard, dangerous job with a high turnover rate.
More than 70% of US freight by weight was moved by truck in 2021, according to data from the American Trucking Associations, a trucking trade association.
“Everything in the room that you’re in, all of your clothes, it’s likely that they were at some point on a truck being driven by a truck driver,” said Karen Levy, an associate professor in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University and author of “Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance.”
While it’s not unusual for essential workers to earn relatively low wages, few jobs have seen their standard pay halved like trucking did. The change is tied to the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which deregulated the trucking industry.
The act allowed trucking companies to set their own rates, and removed heavy regulation that was thought to be economically inefficient and disadvantageous for the consumer. The goal was to save consumers $8 billion a year, the equivalent of $28 billion in 2022 dollars.
But while consumers benefited from cheaper goods, truckers didn’t. “Between 1977 and 1995, the decline in truck drivers’ average real earnings was four times that of demographically comparable workers in manufacturing production,” Levy writes in her book.
Along with depressed wages, truckers face a dangerous job: In the US, one in 6 workers killed on the job is a trucker, according to Levy. That contributes to a high turnover of over 90% for large fleets. While not all of the truckers that quit leave the profession entirely — most hop to other trucking companies in search for better working conditions — the high number signals dissatisfaction, and can make the job even less safe as companies recruit less experienced drivers.
“Up until now, our answer to that has been to train more drivers so that the industry can use them and spit them out,” Levy told Insider. “You’re never gonna have a safe industry if the goal is to chew people up.”
According to a Freight and Logistics Supply Chain Assessment published in February 2022 by the US Department of Transportation, the high turnover rate is one of the “longstanding workforce challenges in the trucking industry. Other challenges include “long hours away from home, and time spent waiting — often unpaid — to load and unload at congested ports, warehouses, and distribution centers.”
Last September, in an attempt to address some of the issues faced by truckers today, Senators Edward J. Markey and Alex Padilla introduced in the Senate a bill that would make sure truckers are paid for overtime, which is among the many things they are not entitled to at the moment.