America has a massive truck driver shortage. Here’s why few want an $80,000 job

by Heather Long

Daniel Gollnick is a truck driver in Melrose, Wis. He makes $45,000 a year, less than he would like, but he is home every night. (Daniel Gollnick)

America has a massive shortage of truck drivers. Joyce Brenny, head of Brenny Transportation in Minnesota, increased driver pay 15 percent this year to try to attract more drivers. Many of her drivers now earn $80,000, she says, yet she still can't find enough people for the job.

About 51,000 more drivers are needed to meet the demand from companies such as Amazon and Walmart that are shipping more goods across the country, according to the American Trucking Associations. The driver shortage is already leading to delayed deliveries and higher prices for goods that Americans buy. The ATA predicts that it's likely to get worse in the coming years.

Many trucking companies are so desperate for drivers that they are offering signing bonuses and pay raises. So why don't more Americans want this job? We asked truck drivers who have been doing the job anywhere from four months to 40 years for their views.

Most said the answer is simple: The lifestyle is rough. You barely see your family, you rarely shower, and you get little respect from car drivers, police or major retailers. Michael Dow said he has been divorced twice because of trucking. Donna Penland said she gained 60 pounds her first year from sitting all day and a lack of healthful food on the road.

A few drivers told The Washington Post that they earn $100,000, but many said their annual pay is less than $50,000 (government statistics say median pay for the industry is $42,000). As for the bonuses, driver Daniel Gollnick said they are a “complete joke” because of all the strings attached.

Despite the hardships, half said they would recommend the job to friends and family, chiefly because, as Gollnick said, “it's the easiest money you can get without a college degree.” Here are the drivers' perspectives on America's trucking crisis.

“I have been divorced two times because of truck driving.” — Michael Dow


Jeffrey Dow, left, and Michael Dow have been driving for about two decades. They started their own company in 2018. (Michael Dow)

Michael Dow of Dallas has been a truck driver for more than two decades. He and his brother started a company, Dow Brothers Transportation, this year. They hope it will more than double their pay from prior years.

Age: 48

Yearly income: $45,000

Why don't people want this job? “The pay is so far behind the curve. I make less money now than I did 20 years ago if you adjust for inflation and cost of living. I figured it out once, and I was making $14 or $15 an hour driving for the big carriers. People flipping hamburgers are demanding $15 an hour.”

Have you gotten a raise? “I have, because I went out and started my own company this year. The rates have never been this good in over 20 years. I hope the driver shortage continues. Skilled drivers like me aren't cheap right now. I'm anticipating I'll make $85,000 to $120,000 this year.”

Would you recommend this job? “I have a 21-year-old son in the military who is about ready to come out. In all honesty, I do not wish him to get into this industry because it's a hard life. I don't recommend it to anyone who has a family. My kids are in their 20s now. I missed most of their lives growing up. They tell me they wish I would have been home more. I have been divorced two times because of truck driving. For a real perspective, talk to a trucker's wife.”

“I see those ads for big driver bonuses, but it's a complete joke.” — Daniel Gollnick

Daniel Gollnick, 28, sits in his truck. He does recommend the job to friends, although he warns them it's a very lonely life. (Daniel Gollnick)

Daniel Gollnick of Melrose, Wis., drives for a company that has him home each night. He used to drive a flatbed truck across the country, but his girlfriend didn't like him being away so much.

Age: 28

Yearly income: $45,000

Did you get a raise lately? “We got a $1 raise this year. We were at $17.50 an hour for most drivers. Now we're at $18.50. That barely covers inflation or anything. I see those ads for big driver bonuses, but it's a complete joke. I've worked for a couple of major trucking companies: Roehl Transport and Melton Truck Lines. Both offered sign-on bonuses, but what they don't tell you is what it's dependent upon to get that $1,000. Sometimes you needed to have certifications to deal with hazmat or be qualified to drive on military bases or ports. And you need to meet fuel-usage requirements, but they usually give you the oldest trucks that are least likely to get the sign-on bonuses because they use more fuel.”

Would you recommend this job? “I do. I tell friends who are working minimum-wage or factory jobs to go get their CDL [Commercial Driver's License, which takes a few weeks]. It's the easiest money you can get without a college degree, but it's a hard industry. You're going to be alone a lot.”

Is the industry in a crisis? “There are not enough truckers. I've been running around doing extra runs, because we are shorthanded. But I've noticed I'm not truly picking up more physical freight. I'm just picking up at more places.”

“I gained 60 pounds because it's a sedentary life.” — Donna Penland

Donna Penland switched from real estate to trucking in her late 40s. She says people treat truckers as though they are dumb, especially female drivers. (Donna Penland.)

Donna Penland of Houston decided to get her CDL 18 months ago after her boyfriend was laid off from his job and wanted to try trucking. The duo “team-drove” a truck, meaning they would trade off driving so the vehicle would be on the road almost 24 hours a day. They eventually broke up, but Penland continued driving on her own.  

Age: 50

Yearly income: "$50,000 is where you’re going to be when you work for a big company. If you want to make more money than that, you have to find an independent person with two or three trucks that really does appreciate you as a driver and they share profits with you.”

Have you received a raise? “I work for Martin Transportation now. They don't offer signing bonuses, but I work on a Coca-Cola dedicated route, and Coke is putting up bonuses because they need drivers. So I got a $3,500 signing bonus. But they don't just give you $3,500. I received $500 after 30 days and another $1,000 after 60 days. They spread it out.”

Would you recommend this job? “No. Not to most of my friends. It takes a special kind of person, because you basically give up your life for the job. You are dedicated to that truck. Most people are 'over the road' drivers, because that is where you make the most money. It means you go coast to coast and border to border. You are supposed to get a day off after every seven days of driving, but companies prefer that you stay out 60 days and then take just a few days off. I gained 60 pounds because it's a sedentary life. You just drive, sleep, drive, sleep. Companies don't treat you like a human. You are a just a machine that makes money for them.”

Is this a good job for women? “I think it is a good profession for women, but there are a lot of doors to break down. The guys treat you like you're stupid and don't know anything. And companies are almost always asking you to do stuff that's illegal — to work extra hours or to dump trash illegally.”

“I wouldn't let my kids even think about doing this.” — Boris Strbac

Boris Strbac has been in the trucking business for nearly two decades. (Boris Strbac)

Boris Strbac of Milwaukee is the manager of Star Trucking. He employs 35 drivers and is a former driver who has worked for other companies and on his own.

Age: 45

Would you recommend this job? “Never. I wouldn't let my kids even think about doing this. This is a really, really hard job. On top of that, people don't respect truck drivers. We are treated as the bad guys on the road by other drivers and the police. The majority of police treat drivers like criminals. We get pulled over for stupid stuff. One of my drivers got a violation because he didn't have enough windshield fluid. That violation stays on the driver's record and my company's record for three years.”

Is the industry in a crisis? “We are seeing record bookings this year and record pay per mile. The reason is there aren't enough drivers. The whole industry is a mess. And it's going to get a hell of a lot more interesting soon. No one knows what to do about the driver shortage. People are banking on driverless trucks, but those are not coming anytime soon.”

“You can kiss your social life goodbye.” — Lee Klass


Lee Klass of Portland, Ore., has been a truck driver for more than 40 years. He took his first selfie for this article. (Lee Klass)

Lee Klass of Portland, Ore., has been driving for four decades. He owns his truck now and does the jobs he wants. He says the real problem isn't the shortage of drivers — it's all the experienced drivers leaving.

Age: 70

Yearly income: Just less than $50,000

How can companies attract more drivers? “Less rules, more money.”

What has changed about truck driving in 40 years? “There's massive turnover in truck driving. People are leaving by the tens of thousands. It's a tough life, and there are too many regulations now. There's a ton more electronic monitoring than when I started. For people who have issues with authority, and I was certainly one of those, this was a good job. You were left on your own. As long as you got your loads delivered, nobody bothered you. Now you're monitored. As soon as you stop, you get a message from the company asking, 'Why have you stopped?' And the government is tracking you with the electronic logging device.”

[In December, the U.S. government required all truck drivers to switch to electronic logging devices that track their hours and ensure they don't drive more than 11 hours during a 14-hour period. Then drivers are required to take a 10-hour break.]

Would you recommend this job? “You can kiss your social life goodbye.”

“It's more than getting behind a steering wheel and driving.” — Ryan Kitchel

Ryan Kitchel holds his son by his truck. Kitchel feels fortunate that he was able to switch to a company that gets him home on weekends and pays well. (Ryan Kitchel)

Ryan Kitchel of Greensboro, N.C., has been a flatbed truck driver for two years. He used to work in emergency services but wanted a change. He is home most weekends, but during the week he drives all over the East Coast with “open trailers” that carry steel, roofs, FEMA trailers and more.

Age: 36

Yearly income: $100,000

Have you gotten a raise lately? “I make decent money. I get paid a percentage [of my load cost]. But I make about the same that my dad made in the 1970s.”

What's frustrating about being a truck driver? “My dad was a truck driver. There was a different level of respect for truck drivers then and more camaraderie. Car drivers today have no understanding of what we do. They cut us off all of the time. Car drivers see a space between trucks, and they jump in. They don't realize that's our stopping lane. We need that space.”

Why aren't more people becoming truckers? “I used to train drivers. A lot of guys don't realize everything that is involved in trucking. It's more than getting behind a steering wheel and driving. You got to be able to do your paperwork. You got to watch your surroundings. You have to keep the truck and trailer in line. You have to watch everyone around you, because cars aren't watching.”

Would you recommend this job? “Yeah. What other job are you going to do minimum training for and jump out of the box making $50,000?”

“Companies don't want to hire you until you have six months of experience.” — Donald Rich

Donald Rich got his commercial driver's license this year. He drives across the country and is enjoying seeing America. (Donald Rich.)

Donald Rich of Yountville, Calif., spent 20 years as a cook in the Army. After retiring from the military, he began working at restaurants, but the pay was so lousy that his wife encouraged him to become a truck driver. He got his license in February and was hired immediately.

Age: 53

Yearly income: $60,000 (expected)

What do you like so far about trucking? “It pays twice as much as the restaurant business. And the potential is there to make a lot more. The first year is supposed to be the hardest. A lot of trucking companies don't want to hire you until you have at least six months of experience.”

Have other companies tried to lure you away? “Yes. Other companies have already tried to lure me away. I've had calls from eight or nine companies already. Some tell me to stay where I am and get more experience.”

Why is the industry in a crisis? “There's a lot of wasted time in trucking. The industry could be a lot more efficient. You end up sitting outside a business for six or eight hours waiting for someone to unload your truck. Businesses don't care, but you are losing hundreds or thousands of dollars of potential pay because you have to just wait.”

Would you recommend this job? “Yes. It will give you a survival income. But it might not be for you if you don't like small enclosed spaces and you want to bathe more than twice a week.”

Teddy Amenabar contributed to this report.

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Comments

At a rough point in my life, I was a truck driver for CR England and Knight Transportation for a few days short of 7 months.

You don’t start at 80,000 a year. That’s such a lie. You make about 600 a week to start, roughly, depending if you get enough miles. You don’t get the good routes, staying in well populated areas like the i5 corridor, at first. You stay in the middle of no where Arizona, North Dakota, etc.

You spend a lot on food because you can’t buy bulk that easily like you would for an apartment. Want a hot meal? You have to eat at fast food restaurants or truck stops.

How’s your back? 7 months I went from never understanding back pain to 6 years later I still suffer from the back pain.

Family life? HA! How does that work when you VISIT home for 3 days out of a month and you get calls CONSTANTLY that you have to get back to the truck. It’s not likely the military where you are doing something decently important. You are wasting your life to ship clothes for the Gap or frozen pizzas.

You are constantly sleep deprived. Constantly sitting. The companies hound you constantly about speeding up and trying to break the law to get loads faster to their destination because they screwed up the logistics and didn’t do some simple math. Yes, they publicly say they don’t tell drivers to break the law. Bullshit. CR England is the worst about this. Knight wasn’t so bad.

Fuck driving jersey in a truck.

The industry needs MASSIVE reformation. Then, some of the arguements here by folks who never did it can be remotely valid. You ruin your personal life and your body for realistic 300 a week after you figure all the costs for not ever being home.

Do American trucks not have tachos? In EU it's impossible for a truck driver to speed or work more than 8 hours a day - if the truck moves even a little bit in the period when the driver is supposed to be resting, that means stupid fines for the transport company, and that's because everything is recorded by the tachometer behind the dash.

Independent trucks don't. Company trucks do. However, the company does not get fined, the driver does, personally.

I see. There is no such distinction over here - if you are carrying goods commercially, you have to have a tachometer, full stop. Also, while the driver can be given a ticket for certain things(speeding mostly) working over hours or any issues with the truck will result in a massive fine for the company(one of the trucks carrying goods for us was fined in Germany recently for 2500 Euro because one side had a small bulge - that's not acceptable). The police also took copies of all tacho recordings for weeks prior and can issue further tickets if any discrepancy in working hours/speed is found.

It’s not likely the military where you are doing something decently important. You are wasting your life to ship clothes for the Gap or frozen pizzas.

I was never a truck driver, but my father was. He was in the military for about 7 years, then got discharged for a severe injury. He worked as a truck driver for about 3 years, then did all he could to rejoin the military and upon doing so never went back to truck driving. This was about 20 years ago, but seeing how messy employment in America is today, I doubt treatment or working conditions for drivers is much better than it was then.

Bah, noticed the typo, I meant "like".

I know a few other guys who made the same decisions, military->truck driving->beg to re-enlist. Same guys who said, "I'll never go back to military".

The guys I meet who are pulling in good money are all union vocational workers. We're talking dump trucks, cement mixers, sometimes roll off (dumpsters/skips), and the holy Grail: heavy haul. I know a guy in New Jersey who works for a well known hauling and rigging company. Makes 130k/yr. Small shop of a dozen guys, no one makes under a 100k, and home just about every night. But good luck getting into those shops. Cronyism and nepotism abound.

This is one of the main reasons I am so heavily in favor of UBI, even though I am quite the anarchist if we are talking about idealism and not pragmatism.

There IS money being made out there by large firms and small firms alike, but it is absolutely NOT based on merit or skill at all.

Whether a business is a failure or a success is 99% based on the relationships and contracts it forms. Typically, unskilled managers and executives will forge the deal FIRST, and then go get the expertise and skilled laborers after.

Startups are an exception to this rule, since the technology is all so new. But rapidly, we all see the "money guys" and the "business guys" coming in to the profession day by day, buying up tech, creating bogus certifications and so on that just add the cruft and bureaucracy that monopolies need to survive.

For every trucker making $130,000 a year, there's 100 truckers making $35,000 a year.

For every trucker making $30,000 a year, there's probably 10,000 unemployed or underemployed people begging for the chance to make middle class money rather than $10 an hour at Burger King

Isn't the ability to develop business relations and close deals a skill in and of itself? That pretty much describes sales skills perfectly.

I know this is NH, so skills are viewed as technical with all other skills regarded as "unnecessary fluff", but at the end of the day business is built on human relationships, so I'd argue the ability to make and maintain relationships with the right people is one of the most important skills one could have.

Current generation couldn't stay off the internet long enough to drive 10 hours a day.

Want more drivers? Start an apprentice program. Allow potential drivers to "tag along" for a long haul delivery, and let them see what it's like. I think there are a lot of people who would be willing to take a few days or week off from their regular job, ride along, and decide whether that's a life they would like. But I don't know of any program that allows for anybody not already in that industry to jump in and take a "test drive."

I have been in transportation for 30 years, trucking is a great career. the challenges are that the company is only as good as their drivers, and the drivers are only as good as their company. Not every trucking company is suited or every shipper, not every shipper is suiteD for every trucking company. Trucking is not a one size fits all, but has many different methods. The driver shortage today is affecting all of trucking,(in part in my opinion) because of the negative media sensationalisms affecting how the public views truckers. A husband and wife team can drive together for several years and be able to save a considerable amount of money for their retirement. The newer technology of trucks today is not as difficult and are female friendly. Logistics can be assisted by the rapid movement of a consistent team, where the trailers are staged for off loading at the consignees. It is true that socially your friends ships are different, one uses a different mode of communication with friends and can meet at different times across the country. Trucking is a great career for women, it is rewarding to be able to earn the same as a man, the truck is not as difficult as everyone says. Relationship management is one of the biggest challenges in any environment, work or non work. IF the industry wants more drivers, focus on the women, when a woman can look someone else in the eye and say "I work with my best friend, my husband, and we will retire in 6 years". THEN YOU WILL GET ATTENTION OF FUTURE EMPLOYEES.

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