Driver Joe Baker sat at the helm of a 10-wheeled, 80,000-pound truck chugging along under a vast, clear sky. His cargo: recycled glass from a manufacturer outside St. Paul, Minnesota. His destination: Muscatine, Iowa.
The 300-mile journey on Nov. 2 was just the start of a typical week for Baker, who has put in 14 years as a trucker, logging five and a half days a week on the road and away from his family in Cabool, Missouri.
Baker, 43, was born into a family of truckers, he explained in a phone interview mid-trip while connected via his wireless headset. Growing up, he swore he never would join the trucking field, but now he works for one of the more than 11,000 trucking companies in Missouri, according to the Missouri Trucking Association.
He is one of 185 drivers at Woody Bogler Trucking Co. (WBT) based in Gerald, according to Corey Novotney, director of recruiting at WBT, which is looking to hire up to 25 more drivers.
Just 20 miles away, Union-based Happy Apples’ trucking division, Lochirco Fruit and Produce Transport (LFP), is on the hunt for five to eight new hires to increase its staff to 15 drivers, President Ed Reidy said.
The companies transport different goods — LFP Transport moves refrigerated produce, while WBT ships anything from construction aggregates to school supplies — but face the same problem: a shortage of drivers.
There’s been a national shortage of drivers since 2011, which saw a deficit of about 10,000 workers, according to the American Trucking Association. In 2013, the shortage nearly doubled, and in 2018 it reached a 60,000-driver disparity. The shortage is expected to increase to 160,000 in the next eight years.
As the pandemic orients consumer habits increasingly toward online shopping, Roadmaster Drivers School President Brad Ball said the need for truck drivers keeps accelerating.
New Buying Habits Mean More Driving
Since the pandemic began, Ball said, “e-commerce has just exploded.” COVID-19 “temporarily muted” the industry in March and April but “by June people had shifted their spending, meaning more trucks are needed to ship goods,” he said.
The second quarter of 2020 saw 44.5 percent more e-commerce sales than the same time frame in 2019.
September trailer orders were up 174 percent, from September 2019, according to Americas Commercial Transportation Research Co.
That has companies such as Werner Enterprises, U.S. Xpress, Covenant Transport, May Trucking Co. and many local companies looking for drivers, Ball said.
“We go where the greatest demand is, and right now the Midwest corridor is an exceedingly difficult place to fill all of these positions that are needed for truck drivers,” he said.
Roadmaster is adding four more locations to its current 13 driving schools, including a location in St. Louis, to help meet the demand. The school offers a four-week training program for a commercial driving license at a cost of nearly $7,000. Last year, the school had 6,500 graduates, including about 300 at its Kansas City location.
On the Road Again
With family in the industry, Baker knew from a young age what the job entailed.
“When I came to Woody, (I told myself), I’m going to make a bit of money and get the hell out,” he said. “But when I got here, they treated me like family right off the bat. I could make good money and get home any time I want.”
Baker said he made a gross income of $109,000 in 2018 and was the first driver at WBT to break an annual gross income of $100,000. His typical gross income is about $87,000 to $93,000, or $52,000 to $59,000 after taxes and insurance.
WBT pays employees $1,300 to $1,500 per week on average, Novotney said, with drivers spending 50 to 60 hours per week on the road.
LFP Transport pays drivers 46 to 48 cents a mile plus stop charges, mileage and safety bonuses and benefits, Reidy said.
In Missouri, the typical heavy tractor-trailer truck driver made $46,000 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
There’s no set paycheck, Baker said. Drivers get paid by the mile or the weight the trucks carry. Either way, the more shipments drivers squeeze in, the better the pay.
“We might make $300, $400 in a day,” he said. “We might be broken down and not make a penny.”
Reidy said the need for trucking “ebbs and flows” with the industry. Demand rose in August, so companies are looking to not only fill their staff, but also to potentially increase it.
No matter the income, Baker said, what people give up might not be worth it.
“My father died a year ago,” he said. “I was on my way to Colorado. I made it back just in time for his funeral. I didn’t get to say goodbye to him. You miss weddings, anniversaries, birthdays. My wife ... doesn’t know when I’m coming home.”
Several regulations, including age, make entry into the field difficult. To drive a tractor-trailer across state lines, employees must be at least 21. A doctor also must approve drivers’ health, which has hurt recruitment and retention.
The 2017 implementation of electronic logging devices also turned some drivers off. The ELD records where drivers sit, how many hours they’re in motion, the seat belts they wear and the speeds they go. If there’s a mistake, it can cost drivers hundreds of dollars. Even if they’re 20 miles from their homes, for example, they must always stop driving after 11 hours.
As Baker drove away from below-freezing Minnesota to sunny Iowa that day, he reflected on all the hours he has spent looking out from this same vantage point in this same driver's seat.
“I can tell you," he said, “there’s no better way to see the United States and meet common people, and there’s no worse way. You get paid to go all over this great country.”