Truck driving is a critical job in our modern economy. Truck drivers transport goods all across the country, making sure stores and businesses have the products they need. However, the reputation of truck driving as a career is mixed. While truckers provide an essential service, the job involves long hours, time away from home, and challenging working conditions. The debate around whether truck driving is respected hinges on factors like income potential, work-life balance, and public perceptions of the role. This article will examine the pros and cons of truck driving as a career and look at evidence on both sides regarding its reputation.
The importance of truck driving
Truck driving is absolutely vital to keep our economy running smoothly. According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), over 70% of all the freight transported in the United States goes on trucks. Trucks transport everything from food and consumer goods to raw materials and machinery. Without truck drivers, store shelves would be empty, manufacturing would halt, and suppliers would be unable to send parts and inventory where they were needed.
The ATA estimates there are currently over 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States. This makes trucking the largest occupation in the transportation industry. Truck driving provides well-paying jobs to millions of workers. The ability to travel the country and earn a stable income appeals to many seeking a career change. At a time when jobs are increasingly scarce in small towns and rural areas, trucking offers an opportunity to those with just a high school diploma.
One of the main factors that contributes to a job’s reputation is the salary it provides. Truck driving has the potential to be a well-compensated career for those without a college degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for tractor-trailer truck drivers is $47,130 per year, which is higher than the median salary for all occupations of $39,810 per year. Truck drivers who work for private fleets and companies transporting expensive cargo tend to earn more, with salaries ranging from $50,000 to $80,000 annually.
With experience, truck drivers can increase their salaries substantially. The highest paid 10% of tractor-trailer drivers earn more than $70,000 per year, per BLS data. Driver salaries often increase with:
- Years of experience
- Good safety records
- Certifications and technical skills
- Favorable employment conditions
- Long haul routes
Bonuses are also common in trucking. Drivers may receive bonuses for fuel efficiency, on-time deliveries, low turnover rates, and safe driving records. These bonuses can add thousands of dollars per year. The potential to earn a solid middle-class income contributes to truck driving’s reputation as a way for those without a college education to find stable work.
While truck driving offers income potential, the nature of the job also requires sacrifices when it comes to work-life balance. Long haul truckers may be away from home for weeks or months at a time. The job requires being on call most days of the year, with overnight driving trips keeping irregular hours. Lack of work-life balance is one of the most commonly cited complaints about truck driving as a career.
Truck drivers are limited by Hours of Service regulations that restrict driving to no more than 11 hours per day. However, the job involves much more than just time behind the wheel. Loading/unloading cargo, paperwork, maintenance, waiting for assignments, and other duties mean workdays of up to 14 hours are common. The sedentary nature of the job also takes a toll on health over time. Obesity, cardiovascular disease, and back problems are occupational hazards for truckers.
The typical schedule of a long haul trucker is:
- Monday: Begin a long distance trip
- Tuesday to Thursday: Continue driving toward destination
- Friday: Arrive to delivery point, unload cargo
- Saturday to Sunday: Begin journey back to home base
- Monday: Arrive home until next assignment
While this schedule allows 2 days off per week, it means being away from family 5-6 days at a time. Truckers miss out on day-to-day home life, holidays, and family events. Divorce rates in the trucking profession are high due to the strains of constant travel. Lack of work-life balance is a major complaint about trucking as a career.
Public perceptions about truck drivers also influence the profession’s reputation. Surveys show mixed attitudes on the part of the general public when it comes to truckers. While most recognize the vital service trucking provides, stereotypes about truck drivers persist. Rudeness on the road, perceived recklessness, holding up traffic, and dangerous truck collisions color public sentiment.
Research by the American Transportation Research Institute in 2019 found:
- 71% of respondents had a favorable opinion of the trucking industry
- 55% agreed most truck drivers operate their vehicles safely
- 28% felt truck drivers are not safe drivers
- 68% said trucks should be allowed to travel at higher speed limits since they limit other vehicles’ speed
- 90% felt government oversight of trucking regulations was ineffective
This mixed data suggests the public understands the importance of trucks. However, lingering stereotypes of “reckless truck drivers” who are dangerous and hold up traffic remain common. These perceptions likely influence whether some view truck driving as a respectable career choice.
Demand for truckers
While work-life balance issues and public perceptions present challenges for the image of truck driving, market conditions also factor into its reputation. There is currently massive demand for new truck drivers. The trucking industry needs to hire roughly 1.1 million new drivers over the next decade to keep pace with freight volumes and replace retiring drivers.
Driver shortages are a major concern among trucking companies right now. An aging workforce and high turnover within the industry contributes to the lack of drivers. In response, trucking companies have been increasing pay, improving benefits, offering more home time, and taking other steps to attract and retain talent.
When demand for workers is high, as it is currently in trucking, it casts a job in a more positive light. Pundits argue that if no one wanted to be a truck driver, companies would not be so desperate to hire. Job seekers also have more leverage to find the best possible opportunities rather than settling for whatever they can get. The high demand for new truckers suggests it is seen as a decent career choice for many, even with the challenges that come with it.
Truck driver demographics
Truck driving is a male-dominated profession, with women making up just 6% of the workforce. However, this proportion has been slowly increasing over time as more women enter the historically male-oriented field. The trucking workforce is also racially diverse, with significant numbers of minority workers. This breakdown shows that trucking can provide employment opportunities for a wide range of demographics. However, the industry is taking steps to attract more women, minorities, and youth into truck driving positions.
Safety and training requirements
In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis within the trucking industry on safety and training for new drivers. All long haul truckers must earn a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) by undergoing extensive training and passing written, skills, and road exams. Trucking companies invest substantial resources to ensure their drivers are safe, compliant with regulations, and professional.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) also implemented a new mandate in 2022 requiring all new commercial vehicle drivers to complete a probationary period of on-the-job training with an experienced driver before driving solo. These steps aim to improve safety outcomes and further legitimize truck driving as a skilled trade that requires extensive training.
The typical path to becoming a truck driver includes:
- Earning a high school diploma or GED
- Enrolling in a truck driving school and earning a CDL (3-6 weeks)
- Applying to a trucking company
- Undergoing 2-6 weeks of company orientation and supervised driving
- Continuing training first year on the job
The increased training and experience requirements suggest trucking has evolved into a more professionalized field. No longer can someone simply walk in off the street and be handed the keys to an 80,000 lb vehicle. Extensive vetting, supervision, and training is required first. This contributes to improved safety outcomes and public perceptions.
Truck driver health
One of the biggest challenges in the trucking profession is maintaining mental and physical health. Truck drivers face a number of health risks, including:
- Obesity – Limited healthy food options at truck stops
- Lack of exercise – Sedentary nature of sitting for extended periods
- Cardiovascular disease – Increased risk from limited activity, poor diet, stress
- Diabetes – Develops more frequently among obese and inactive workers
- Bad ergonomics – Back/neck pain from sitting improperly
- Mental health issues – Depression, burnout from isolation/stress
Trucking companies are starting to take steps to improve driver health, such as:
- Installing gyms at trucking terminals
- Offering bonuses/incentives for weight loss
- Providing ergonomics training
- Screening for sleep apnea
- Access to counseling
However, the intrinsically unhealthy nature of trucking – long periods of sitting, lack of activity, poor roadside food options – means drivers are likely to face chronic health issues. Some view the negative health effects as a reason trucking does not deserve greater respect as a career. However, the payoff between income and health trade-offs depends on one’s priorities.
Trucking industry outlook
While there are certainly downsides, data suggests truck driving will continue to be in high demand and provide stable employment. The ATA projects the number of truck driving jobs will grow by 159,000 between 2020 and 2030 – a 6% increase. That is faster than average job growth across the economy.
Key factors in the industry outlook include:
- Growth in ecommerce shipping requiring more deliveries
- Expanding manufacturing and construction markets needing materials transported
- Increasing consumer spending and demand for all types of freight
- A rapidly retiring workforce that will need to be replaced
- Challenges for the industry attracting younger demographics to replace retirees
If current trends continue, analysts predict trucking companies will need to continue bumping up pay and benefits to attract enough drivers. This suggests that even with the challenges that come with trucking, it will provide steady, well-compensated work for those willing and able to meet the demands.
The question of whether truck driving is a respected career has convincing arguments on both sides. The essential nature of the job to the economy and the potential for a decent middle-class salary stack up as pros. However, the lack of work-life balance, health impacts, stereotypes about truckers as unsafe, and other factors lead some to look down on the profession.
Ultimately, truck driving provides a unique path to earning a good living for those without advanced education. For someone willing and able handle the challenges of being on the road for extended periods, trucking can be a viable career option. But it requires sacrifices in terms of health, relationships, and comfort that not everyone can manage. Individual priorities and qualities determine if trucking is the right career move.
In the end, truck driving will likely continue growing and providing employment due to desperate industry-wide demand for new drivers. Yet whether public perceptions shift to view professional truckers as the skilled and critical workers they are remains an open question. Those within the industry can take steps to gain respect by focusing on safety, training, public outreach, and maintaining high standards. But preconceived notions are difficult to shake. As long as goods need to be transported along the nation’s highways, truck drivers will have stable work transporting them. Yet the debate on the reputation of truckers is likely to continue raging alongside the big rigs rolling down the open road.