The Income of a Truck Driver
Truck driving salary remains low despite increasing demand
There is a troubling condition developing in the U.S. economy that has received a great deal of press over the last couple of years—America does not have enough truckers.
Not even close to enough, it seems. There are currently 48,000 unfilled truck driver positions nationwide, and that figure is expected to reach a staggering 890,000 by 2025. It is unsurprising, then, that whenever the common American drives on an interstate, he/she passes a truck that advertises, “DRIVERS WANTED—GREAT PAY, GREAT BENEFITS.”
Trucking fleets and transportation/logistics companies are clamoring for more drivers, and their claim that drivers receive “great pay and great benefits” appeals to the layman’s economic sensibilities—the basic principles of economics tell us that with a high demand and low supply of labor should mean a higher average pay rate for truck drivers. In theory, the average truck driver salary should be well above their equilibrium market price.
But just how much money should a trucker expect to earn, exactly, when transportation companies advertise the great pay associated with working in the trucking industry? And given the economic circumstances surrounding the trucking industry, are trucker wages really as competitive as they let on? Let’s take a deeper look behind the dichotomy at play between the status of the trucking industry and truck driver wages.
Diving into The Truth About Truck Driver Income
When taking a look at average wages, and the true compensation that a laborer is given in exchange for his/her services, one ought to analyze two aspects of their pay—the personal “accounting profit,” which is the measure of the actual gains and losses that a trucker earns on his/her income, and the personal “economic profit,” which takes into account implicit costs of carrying out an action.
In this section, we will look at truck driver wages from an “accounting profit” point of view; that is to say, we will break down the actual dollar-value that the average commercial truck driver is expected to make across the United States.
How Much Money Truckers Earn, State-by-State
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for a heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver is $45,570.
That statistic, though, when examined closely, proves itself only a rough projection of how much money truckers make. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps many different types of trucking activities into one broad category, combining the wages of the 1.7 million long-haul drivers and local delivery people, alike. The types of trucking that are represented in these figures vary greatly, and so do the salaries, accordingly—the tenth percentile of truckers make a meager annual income of $28,160, while the top ninetieth gross $65,260 or more.
While the mean annual figure of $45,570 helps to get a feel for the overall income for the average truck driver pay in America, it is better to take a look at the income statistics on a state-by-state basis. Below is a table for the mean annual wage per U.S. state.
What is the Average Salary for Truck Drivers in the United States?
A State by State Breakdown of Annual Truck Driver Pay
|District of Columbia||$49,280|
*Numbers taken from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Judging a trucker’s pay is best done by looking at his/her state’s annual average. That figure, more so than the national average, is an accurate picture of what a trucker can expect to earn.
Based off of numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most truckers earn somewhere between $0.28 and $0.40 per mile—it all depends on location and tenure.
The Economic Background of the Trucking Industry: Shortages and Strife
Great, so we know the number of dollars the average trucker from each state makes—so what? What does this really tell us about why truckers make the kind of money that they do? Is the pay enough?
To understand the level of pay given to truck drivers for their services, and in order to assess whether or not such pay is just, it is important to analyze the economic conditions surrounding the industry—not just the numeric salary that the average trucker earns.
Economically speaking, there are two conditions surrounding the trucking industry that should, in theory, drive driver and owner-operator wages up; the infamous trucking shortage and the grueling nature of the job.
The Trucking Shortage
In researching the trucking shortage or trucking pay, you may have found some contradictory articles online—how can it be that an industry with nearly 50,000 vacant positions can also be the most commonly occupied profession in 29 U.S. states?
It is true that “truck driver” is among the most commonly held jobs in the United States. There are roughly 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the U.S. By these figures, about one in every one-hundred Americans is a trucker. Trucking has been able to grow in the United States because, unlike other unskilled labor, it can’t be off-shored; a worker in Bangladesh can’t drive a truck between Minnesota and Utah, after all. It also can’t be automated, as of right now, so machines haven’t rendered the occupation obsolete for humans.
So how, throughout all of the figures of growth and opportunity for trucking in the U.S., is there this shortage that looms over the entire economy? Simply put, the rate of growth of the trucking industry is vastly outpaced by the demand for land transportation of goods. Over 70% of the total freight tonnage moved in the United States is carried by truck, according to the American Trucking Associations. That amounts to 10.5 billion tons of freight annually, a quantity that would be most efficiently carried if there were more truckers.
The rising demand for truckers is unfortunately coupled by a rapidly aging truck driver population. The trucking industry has a dismal track record of recruiting young drivers—under 5% of professional truck drivers are between the ages of 20-24 in the United States, compared to some 37.5% that are older than 45 (and thus at most twenty years away from retirement age). Very soon, the trucking industry will be shrinking in size while the economic demand for their services will rise sharply.
The key concept behind these facts and figures is that there is a sizable demand for labor as truck drivers, and that demand is going to grow far larger in the next couple of decades.
A Strenuous Profession, without the Differential
Another economic factor that should influence the wages of truck drivers is the strenuous, lonely nature of the job.
We hardly need to tell you how challenging it is to be a truck driver, particularly a long-haul driver. It is a job that is at once thankless yet essential to the daily life of the average American. Truck driving makes it difficult to have a social life, it is incomparably lonely and its sedentary nature leads to severe health risks.
Now typically, when a job is physically dangerous, socially unappealing or notably arduous, that job pays better than most jobs of similar status or of similar training requirements—workers of “harder” jobs receive what is called a “wage differential” in order to compensate them for their burdens. Take coal mining, for example. Coal mining is a dangerous profession, and in order to compensate miners for the risk associated with the work, the average coal miner in West Virginia earns $60,000 per year as an average starting salary—compare that with the $40,000 starting point for J.B. Hunt, for instance, a reputable trucking company, and a disparity is apparent.
Considering that the average trucker only lives to age 61, largely in thanks to the nature of the work, it would seem as if truck drivers should be entitled to wage differentials similar to coal miners and other dangerous professions.
With a summary of truckers’ income and the basic economic factors behind the trucking industry covered, we can now take a look at the real wages of truck drivers throughout the United States and decide whether or not the pay is consistent with the labor.
So… How Much Do Truck Drivers Really Earn?
After comparing the economic situation in which the trucking industry finds itself and the real wage that truckers make in each state, it is up to you to decide whether or not they are fairly compensated.
Many would say that no, the trucking profession does not pay substantially enough to bear the downsides of the work. It is no surprise that there is a trucking shortage, really—why would millennials and young workers sign up for such a job? It leads to low life expectancy and a lonely life on the road. The pay may be proving insufficient for young workers, despite the high demand for new truckers.
The growing shortage of truck drivers in the United States shows that truck drivers do not currently make enough money—if they pay balanced out the negative aspects of the job, more and more people would sign up to be truckers. Since this is not happening, it is clear that, although some of the median wages may make trucking seem like a lucrative industry, the pay is too low. Be skeptical when you see companies advertise “great pay great benefits”—as of now, the pay isn’t quite enough to justify the rough lifestyle of a trucker. If a career on the road interests you, check out our piece on starting a trucking business.
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