The industry faces a shortage of drivers nationwide. In the next 10 years it will need to hire 89,000 new drivers a year to replace those who are retiring and to meet projected demand, according to the Arlington, Va.-based American Trucking Associations.
First-year drivers for Knight now earn from $35,000 to more than $40,000 annually. Pay increases to about $45,000 in their second year, with wages rising from there. Several companies nationwide advertise wages exceeding $60,000 annually for experienced drivers with sign-on bonuses of $1,000 to $3,000.
"Here you have a blue-collar job that pays pretty well, and pay is going up aggressively at the moment, and has good benefits," said Bob Costello, chief economist and senior vice president for the American Trucking Associations.
But many people who get into the industry find they can't hack the long hours, traffic and the occasional need to kneel on a frozen highway shoulder to install snow chains. Or they find similar driving jobs that keep them closer to home. That means trucking companies are constantly hiring.
"What you have is an occupation that is a lifestyle commitment," Costello said. "This is not a 9-to-5, going to the office in the morning and seeing the family in the evening. This is a job where, especially when you are new to the industry, you will be lucky to be home every week."
That's fine with 28-year-old Kyle Coulter, who recently passed the test to earn his commercial drivers license and soon will begin driving for Knight. He said his wife pushed him to go into the industry. They have three children, ages 14, 8 and 5.
"She said, 'We'll miss you, but as long as you bring that good money in …' " he said.
Coulter went through a pre-trip inspection of a truck at Knight's west Phoenix training yard last week. He spent the past three years working warehouse jobs and driving a forklift for about $10 an hour after moving to Arizona from Oklahoma.
"I can save up more money and I can support my kids a little better," he said. "I can give them everything I never had when I was younger."
Trena Rodriguez, 45, had never driven a truck, but on her third day of training recently, she was getting comfortable backing up a truck and a trailer.
She previously worked at a jean factory but wants to earn her commercial drivers license so she can team-drive for Knight with her husband, who began working for the company about five months ago.
"It's a great opportunity to spend more time with my husband and see the great sights," she said while leaning out the window of a training truck.
"It's hard, but I'm getting more confident."
Knight mostly hires experienced drivers, but also constantly runs eight to 10 new drivers through its two-week training program in Phoenix.
"Every trucking company has trucks that do not have somebody to drive them today," said Kevin Quast, chief operating officer and executive vice president for Knight.
To prevent drivers from moving on to other industries, he said Knight has increased pay from 14 to 20 percent in the past 18 months and also increased bonuses.
Becoming a trucker
To begin training at Knight, applicants first must pass a written test and get their Arizona commercial driver's license instruction permit if they never have had a CDL before.
The permit allows them to drive a truck on the highway for training.
Most trucking companies review driving and criminal histories on a case-by-case basis, but a record of crashes, driving under the influence, excessive speeding tickets or criminal convictions usually are deal-breakers. The industry also performs frequent random drug testing.
Knight trains drivers in Phoenix and pays them $400 a week for the two to three weeks of training. The training actually costs $3,000, but Knight loans trainees the cost and deducts $50 from each of their paychecks once they start driving until the loan is paid off.
Once the CDL course is complete, trainees become "squires" and start road-training for four to six weeks with a company trainer.
Drivers then must pass a skills and road test before they are allowed to drive alone. The test includes a vehicle inspection and backing up.
Upon completion, drivers can operate a vehicle solo, although they are closely monitored for four to five months. Drivers must complete 30,000 miles of travel this way before graduating from the program.
"It's a good, honest day's work," Quast said. "It just gets in your blood."
Variety of work
Truck drivers can work under a variety of arrangements, depending what works best for their family and schedule.
The most common scenario is to be a full-time driver assigned to a truck, taking routes assigned by the company.
Experienced drivers often buy their own trucks and work as independent contractors, choosing which routes they drive.
Some drivers work part time, requesting routes for a portion of the year and time off at others. Still others work in teams, splitting the driving time between two people.
Knight specializes in "irregular" routes.
"That means a driver gets a work assignment to haul a load that takes them to a different city," Quast said. "They do not know what they are going to do tomorrow, typically. We work hard to plan ahead so they know what they are going to do, but it is not the same thing every day."
Knight sells used trucks to drivers who want to work as independent contractors. Those drivers essentially become small-business owners and have more control over their schedule.
"They make decisions relative to the type of truck they operate and where they operate in the country," Quast said. "If they want to do cross-country routes, they can do that. If they want to stay close to home, they can do that."
Trucks cost about $130,000 new, and Knight sells them for between $50,000 and $70,000 after they've been run for four years with about 400,000 miles on them. With proper maintenance, the trucks can achieve 1 million miles, Quast said. Independent contractors often purchase them through four-year leases.
"Many (independent contractors) will work hard to get their truck paid off and will keep it and run them longer," he said. "Or they will upgrade to a newer truck."
Most trucks are equipped with a single twin bed behind the front seats, but some trucks have an upper and lower bunk.
Team drivers who work together in one truck, such as a husband and wife who split the driving, can earn $150,000 to $200,000 annually, he said.
"It's a good way to work and save up for a house," he said.
Drivers who work as trainers, sharing a truck with trainees who must complete a month of supervised driving, earn as much as $90,000 a year, Quast said.
Driving, of course, is hazardous work. Truckers suffered the most work site fatalities of any industry in 2014, with 735 being killed on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the fatality rate for the industry was 23 per 100,000 workers. That was below farmers/ranchers (26 per 100,000) and roofers (46 per 100,000).
It's far below the most hazardous occupation, logging, which killed 110 of every 100,000 workers, according to the BLS.
The Department of Transportation enforces a variety of rules regarding the hours drivers spend behind the wheel and other matters to promote safety within the industry. Dealing with those regulations can be its own headache. Drivers, including those operating motor coaches and buses, have been fined almost $34 million so far this year by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration within the DOT.
A growing shortage
The trucking industry has flirted with a worker shortage for the past 15 years, but the gap has grown since 2011, when the economy really began to rebound from the Great Recession, according to the American Trucking Associations.
The trade group estimates the industry could have supplied steady work for an additional 38,000 drivers last year, and that the gap is closer to 48,000 today.
Retirements are a major culprit. The average age of U.S. truckers is 49, compared with 42 for all workers. Trucking also has failed to attract women, who represent fewer than 6 percent of drivers, but 47 percent of the national workforce.
The improving economy creates two challenges for long-haul companies.It means more goods need to move through the economy, and it also means more job opportunities in construction and other industries that compete with trucking for workers, according to the ATA.
About 70 percent of all goods are carried by truck.
"If the trend stays on course, there will likely be severe supply-chain disruptions resulting in significant shipping delays, higher inventory carrying costs and perhaps shortages at stores," Costello wrote in an October report.
The industry has succeeded in attracting minorities, which represent nearly 39 percent of drivers, as well as military veterans, which many trucking companies make priority hires. The ATA has committed to hiring 100,000 veterans over the next two years.
"We are getting some success there," Costello said. "These folks are not going to be gone as long as if they were stationed overseas, so that's a little easier for them. Though in some cases, I suspect they want to be around their family all the time because they have been away while in the military."
Swift Transportation, also based in Phoenix, sees the ability to retain drivers as key to its profit margins. A recent report from Wanted Analytics estimates the company is searching for as many as 189 employees in the Phoenix area.
Swift's CEO, Jerry Moyes, addressed the company's efforts to keep drivers during a recent earnings conference call.
"Driver retention was also a challenge in the beginning of the third quarter, especially around the Fourth of July," Moyes said on the call, according to a transcript provided by investing website Seeking Alpha.
He said the company has a "hyperfocus" on driver retention, which has improved since the summer.
He said he does not expect wages to continue to increase as they have the past two years, but that drivers should continue to bring home more money thanks to increased work opportunities.
"Having said that, as we have seen in periods past, the driver market can tighten in short order," he said. "So we will continue to closely monitor our recruitment and our retention trends to ensure we are appropriately compensating all of our drivers."