The trucking industry struggles with persistent under-staffing year-over-year, and attrition due to burnout only exacerbates the problem. Truck drivers reportedly deliver upwards of 70 percent of all goods and materials, and each time people leave long-haul positions or the industry at large, rising freight costs are passed along to consumers. A growing supply chain issue involves the ability of some companies to maintain inventories and service customers. Although industry leaders recognize trucker burnout ranks among their workforce concerns, its impact on supply chains may be greater than many realize.
A University of Arkansas research study identified powerful links between truck driver burnout and turnover rates. After polling upwards of 190 CDL-holders who worked as employees, not owner-operators, researchers highlighted three distinct underlying causes — exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. The latter is commonly associated with the feeling someone’s efforts are useless or meaningless.
“While ‘burnout’ is synonymous with ‘exhaustion’ to many, the authors find that drivers come into the industry expecting difficult work. Therefore, exhaustion generally isn’t enough to cause a driver to consider quitting,” the U of Arkansas study reportedly states. “Similarly, while cynical drivers may feel like competent professionals who are being undermined by incompetent co-workers or government regulations, they do not generally view quitting as the solution to their problems. However, once drivers begin to feel inefficacy, they are much more likely to seek a new job or career.”
In recent years, truck driver turnover has remained relatively high. From 2019 to 2020, for example, large truckload carriers experienced attrition of 90-91 percent, and small load outfits continued to post turnover rates at or above two-thirds of the workforce. This level of employee disruption inevitably causes wide-reaching blowback on sometimes fragile supply chains.
Experienced truckers earning top-tier wages may be hesitant to give up the financial benefits of their expertise by leaving the sector. Many pivot from long-haul trucking and secure local or regional positions that pay equal if not better salaries. Big box retailers are luring OTR truckers to their cause with sign-on bonuses and annual pay scales close to or above six figures. Job-hopping into these positions allows burnt-out drivers to minimize some of the roots causes such as loneliness, sleeping in a rig, and feelings of inefficacy. Delivering goods and products to appreciative retailers and witnessing — first-hand — how their supply chain efforts impact communities is typically meaningful.
Although this repositioning of the workforce helps truckers struggling with burnout, it also reduces the number of qualified CDL professionals in the OTR game. When industry experts speak in broad terms about the increased need to fill tractor-trailer positions, it’s essential to understand burnout plays a critical role in various aspects of the supply chain. Even if the country achieved a higher rate of truck driver employment, they might not necessarily be in the OTR jobs that significantly impact freight costs that are passed along to consumers.