Are trucking jobs about to drive off a cliff?

Too few are in it for the long haul.
Too few are in it for the long haul.
Image: AP Photo/David Goldman
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Trucking has long been consistently white and overwhelmingly male, but now it’s also getting older, which is creating some problems.

In the past, retiring drivers would be replaced with younger people starting out in the industry, but that’s no longer the case. Fewer young people are moving into the profession, and there is already a shortage of drivers. If e-commerce continues to grow (and there’s no reason to suspect that it won’t) the demand on trucking will only increase, creating a potentially huge driver shortage.

At the same time, companies around the world are trying to develop self-driving trucks. Which creates a strange dynamic: There’s a big shortage of truckers, and because of technology (e-commerce), we need a lot more of them. But because of technology (automation), those jobs may be taken over by computers.

And that places truckers in a perilous position.

Truck driving: a path to (relative) riches

The median income for truck drivers in 2017 was $44,500. That’s better than the national average, and even more impressive when you factor in educational experience. Most truck drivers—94% of them—don’t have a college degree. The average income for someone with a high school diploma is $37,336, and that number goes down to $26,780 if you didn’t graduate from high school. If truck driving jobs start to disappear, so will one of the better-paying professions for a large number of people.

The family breadwinner

If trucks drive themselves, it’s not just individual human drivers who will suffer, but also their families. A typical US worker between 16 and 65 years old contributes 42% to his or her household’s income. A truck driver contributes 55%. The gap is especially large for drivers between the ages of 30 and 55, who earn more than half the money.

Few alternatives

Truckers are among the three most common jobs in almost every state. And given the large number of people doing it and the good money they make, it’s not easy to find other professions people can switch into. If we pick jobs that are equally well-paid—with a median income equal to or above truck drivers—and with an employment base of at least 80% of the numbers of truck drivers within each state, based on 2017 American Community Survey data, we find a few alternative professions that could potentially accommodate the big number of jobs affected by automation. Here’s a state-by-state look.

While states that do not employ a large share of truck drivers have a lot more options than others, the most common alternatives are school teachers and nurses. Good paying jobs, to be sure, but both require specialized training and college degrees. Which gets back to the education issue, and a worrisome question: If automation displaces drivers, where do aging, non-college-educated workers go to make the same kind of money they were earning when they were behind the wheel?