The United States will be short 250,000 truck drivers by 2020 as older drivers retire and young people reject driving as a career, according to industry figures.
"We have to change the public's perception toward the driver, we have to help our drivers raise the perception of themselves, and there's obviously a pay issue, too. The wages to attract the best people have to go up ... but there's a lot of (businesses) who don't want to pay high freight," said Brian Fielkow, owner and CEO of Houston's Jetco Delivery.
Fielkow is addressing the shortage by making his company a more attractive place to work. He is buying new trucks, building a new headquarters and promoting a safety culture that puts the driver in charge. He hosted a driver appreciation event on Saturday where he asked a former astronaut, an internationally recognized safety expert and a personal trainer to give pep talks.
His strategy of focusing on drivers and employee well-being is working, Fielkow said, emphasizing how he has successfully convinced customers that better service from better drivers is worth higher freight rates.
"We've grown our driver count, despite a severe driver shortage," Fielkow said in his pep talk. "Where do our drivers come from? They come from you. You are recruiting because you're happy."
Stafford Wilson, a truck driver for 23 years who is Jetco's driver advocate, said a supportive management team makes the difference in a field that is changing both for the better and the worse. New transmissions, tires and suspensions have made the job less physically demanding, but driving on crowded roads is harder, which is where Fielkow's approach makes a difference.
"A lot of times, when people come to work here, they can't wrap their mind around what they have," Wilson said. "It takes time for them to see that it is real, they really do care about treating you fairly here."
Respect in the head office helps offset the public's perception, he added.
"Truck drivers used to be seen as the knights of the road, you'd be carrying a shipment of medicine or food," he said. "But with all the lawsuits and get-rich-quick lawyers, truck drivers are getting a negative image."
'Convoy' a hit
The high point for truck drivers came in the late 1970s, when C.W. McCall recorded "Convoy," a hit song that became a Sam Peckinpah movie in 1978 starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw. Country singer Jerry Reed portrayed the good-natured truck driver Cledus Snow in 1977's "Smokey and the Bandit," which spun off two sequels about trucking.
Citizens Band radios became popular in family cars to chat with drivers and hear about speed traps.
The job, though, is not nearly as glamorous with long hours spent weaving 40 tons around potholes and thoughtless drivers. The irony is that fatalities in large truck accidents peaked with its role in pop culture in 1979 when 6,539 people were killed, 86 percent of them car passengers, according to the Institute for Highway Safety.
Federal transportation regulations, the corporatization of the industry and safer trucks have brought the death toll down to 3,602 in 2013, a 75 percent drop in deaths per mile traveled since 1979. But young people are no longer lured by spending weeks on the road.
"It's my office with wheels, I feel good being out there by myself on the road," 32-year-old driver Julian Leal said. "But I like that I get to go home every day and see my family."
There are potential solutions for the driver shortage emerging. The current draft of the federal highway bill would allow states to raise the truck weight limit from 80,000 pounds to 91,000 pounds and allow trucks to pull three trailers.
Trucking companies say bigger trucks are necessary because miles traveled is growing 22 times faster than the road network. Safety advocates, though, say heavier and longer trucks are more difficult to operate and more deadly.
Like airline pilots?
In the long term, though, trucks may not need drivers at all. Daimler rolled the first semi-autonomous 18-wheeler onto Nevada's public roads for testing in May, with plans to make the Freightliner Inspiration commercially available in 2024. The driver is not eliminated, but his or her duties are different.
"I see the Freightliner trucks as something that will bring truckers to be more like airplane pilots, with the computer doing more work," Fielkow said. "That could attract more people."
High technology, though, won't make up for low pay. Cheap shipping means low wages and that will drive people out of trucking unless something changes.
Most likely it'll be the shipping charge.