scorecardMeet a 25-year-old trucker who says there's 'not a trucker shortage, it's a pay shortage'
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Meet a 25-year-old trucker who says there's 'not a trucker shortage, it's a pay shortage'

Juliana Kaplan   

Meet a 25-year-old trucker who says there's 'not a trucker shortage, it's a pay shortage'
PolicyPolicy4 min read
  • Companies are struggling to hire truckers right now. It's one factor bogging down supply chains.
  • Clayton Atkins, a 25-year-old trucker, said the problem is low pay, especially for new drivers.

Clayton Atkins, 25, used to get lonely when he'd spend weeks on the road.

On some days he wouldn't talk to anyone until his wife got off work. He'd rotate between calling her, a couple of relatives, and the occasional friend.

Atkins isn't alone: Truckers previously told Insider's Grace Dean that the long stretches away from home and family — alongside low pay — have made the job less than coveted.

Now, Atkins' work as a trucker is more local. He travels between Louisiana, Florida, and his home state of Alabama.

As workers around the country quit their jobs en masse, the trucking industry needs an estimated 80,000 more drivers to operate optimally. That's a historic high, according to the American Trucking Associations. As of February, there were just under 1.55 million people working in truck transportation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — a sizable jump from about 1.48 million a year earlier, but certainly not enough to plug the shortage. That shortage could also grow to over 160,000 by 2030, according to the ATA.

The pandemic may have exacerbated the industry's woes, but it was already dealing with a "trucking bloodbath." As Insider's Rachel Premack reported in 2019, trucking fell into a recession as demand fell, and thousands of truckers lost their jobs.

Meanwhile, trucker shortages have bogged down supply chains. But, as with industries across the economy, the fix may be rethinking what wages and benefits look like for the demanding role.

"If you ask any trucker, it's kind of like a broken record," said Atkins, who's been in the industry for three years. "It's not a trucker shortage, it's a pay shortage."

Atkins thought trucking would offer a fresh start and good pay

When Atkins was 18, he joined the military. He served until he was 22 — and then he wanted a fresh start.

"My oldest brother had been a trucker for about six to eight years at that point," he said. "They have a nice house, nice cars, four-wheelers, boats, all that sort of fun stuff."

His brother told him to use his GI bill to get his CDL, or commercial driving license. The cost of getting a CDL varies by state. In New York, the average tuition rates for CDL schools come to almost $14,000, according to Freightwaves. In Alabama, where Atkins now drives, the average tuition cost is about $3,950.

"It's definitely not what I expected when I got into it," Atkins said.

His first job was delivering beer. "That is quite possibly one of the worst jobs you can get in trucking, because you maybe drive the truck a total two to three hours a day." The rest of the time was spent stocking beer at gas stations, bars, and anywhere else that needed it.

He's since tried a "bunch" of different types of cargo. Most of his experience is in flatbed and heavy hauling, but right now he's trying his hand at car hauling.

"It's been a slow progression to get where I am now," he said. "It's definitely not like a quick get into it and you make money."

Now he thinks trucking is a 'last resort,' especially for young people

Atkins said there's a "major issue": He can open up a job site, type in "truck driving job," and see "a million ads" promising $100,000 to $120,000 a year. "But every trucker knows that is a 100% lie," he said.

As of 2020, the median pay for heavy and tractor-trailer drivers was $47,130 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Time magazine's Alana Semuels covered a similar phenomenon in a piece that argues that there's no shortage of actual truckers, but a retention issue stemming from the industry's deregulation. New truckers "find that the job pays much less than they'd been led to believe, and that working conditions in the industry are terrible," Semuels wrote.

"Why would I give up what I'm doing to go become a trucker, live outta my truck for three weeks, and only make $50,000 a year when there's a bunch of other jobs where you can go do that?" Atkins said. "They just want to screw over these new drivers because they know they can."

Atkins said that a good starting wage for truckers would be at least $70,000 a year. He said that the "biggest thing" is that it's hard to attract people into the industry — "and it's not really gonna change unless there's a change in pay."

"You don't really get younger people like my age getting into trucking," Atkins said. "You get people who are maybe in their 30s, 40s, even upwards of 50s getting their CDL, because maybe they've been in a dead-end job their whole life or a dead-end trade that only pays so much."

Those truckers see it as "a way out," according to Atkins. Others may "fall into it" because they have truckers in the family, or know other truckers.

"It's not people's first choice. It's usually a last resort."