Executive Summary

California agricultural shippers experienced record increases in trucking costs in 2021. Some suggested a shortage of truck drivers was the cause. California state agencies were asked to review policies relevant to the industry’s workforce and operations to see what state government might do to help. The agencies, in turn, commissioned this research to study the work and supply of truck drivers and gather suggestions to improve working conditions on the job as well as training and career pathways for drivers. Though state agencies funded the research and contributed data, the conclusions and recommendations are those of the authors alone.

We looked at a wide range of statistical data from state and federal sources. We talked to drivers, shippers, industry associations, and other stakeholders. We heard about problems facing drivers. Some of these concerns, like congestion and poor driving behavior, are perennial. For other problems, like the state’s truck speed limit and limited truck parking, the state has options to consider ready at hand.

We did not find evidence of a shortage of people interested in becoming truck drivers, but we did find strong evidence of a retention problem. That problem is concentrated in the long-haul segment of the industry—the segment that caused shippers the most pain in 2021. Because of this high turnover, long-haul trucking is the primary gateway to the industry for new truckers. Drivers argued that the job was challenging because of long hours and time away from home, but poor-quality training and bad initial jobs discouraged many would-be drivers. In this area, the state has some unique opportunities to foster partnerships that will better utilize state training monies. These options include funding and fostering an alternative pipeline to trucking careers built on local training and local jobs that lead directly to agricultural trucking jobs.

What Caused Freight Rates to Spike?

The increase in rates experienced by agricultural shippers in California resulted from the intersection of immediate disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic and long-term cycles in the trucking industry. In short, COVID crushed demand for many trucking services at a time when the industry was already reducing capacity. Employers slashed workforces and then struggled to rehire drivers and add equipment as the economy restarted, demand surged, and labor markets tightened.

The trucking industry tries to stay lean to keep capacity tight, expanding when rates increase and shrinking when they fall. COVID produced a more extreme and rapid version of this cycle that far outpaced the ability of the industry to scale up. This cycle was experienced as a crisis for agricultural shippers, but high rates made for the best of times for the trucking industry.

Agricultural Trucking

There are a wide variety of trucking jobs in agriculture. The biggest difference is between jobs that are local and those that are long-haul. We did not hear about or find evidence of an unusual shortage of local drivers, aside from some immediate COVID-related problems. Local jobs varied, however, in job tenure and hiring patterns. Some local jobs, like dairy, have very little turnover and hiring is relatively infrequent. Others, like tomatoes, have tremendous turnover because they are seasonal, requiring employers to go out and find new drivers every year. Essentially, some local jobs have shortages at the start of every new season. The main area in which we heard about problems for shippers was long-haul refrigerated trucking.

Long-haul refrigerated is a “wait and hurry-up” service from the perspective of drivers. This characteristic stems from the nature of the freight itself, which is often fresh and perishable. Drivers typically wait while goods are loaded in their trailer. Sometimes freight may not be ready to load because it must still be harvested, cooled, processed, or packed. All of this means lots of non-driving work time and long hours. Drivers in the long-haul refrigerated segment can work 100 hours or more in a week and spend weeks at a time on the road. They are usually paid by the mile or load, so delays and disruptions mean increased amounts of unpaid work and possibly a lower paycheck at the end of the week. While pay for experienced drivers can be attractive—much more than $100,000 a year—new drivers can earn very little, sometimes less than minimum wage when all work hours are counted. In addition, most long-haul refrigerated drivers spend weeks away from home at a time. Drivers say that low pay and time away from home are what lead to turnover.

Making the Job Better

Truckers identified a number of things that would make the job better. At the top of the list is rethinking the statewide 55 mph speed limit for trucks—California is the only state in the nation with such a policy. For drivers, the fact that cars were often traveling 20 mph faster or more was the main safety issue they faced.

Equally important and related to the speed limit for drivers is a desperate shortage of truck parking. Drivers argued that the state slowed them down, requiring them to take more breaks, but there was often nowhere to take them.

Improving Retention

The trucking companies with the most turnover have the greatest incentive to recruit and train new drivers, which is the root of trucking’s retention problem from the perspective of drivers. New drivers are likely to attend training school for several weeks and then spend weeks or months out on the road with a trainer. Drivers are often required to sign a training contract that indebts them to the employer unless they stay with the employer for a year.

Once they are out on their own, drivers can expect to work 80-100 hours a week and be on the road away from home for weeks at time. When all that time in counted, these new drivers may not make minimum wage. In terms of quality of training and first employment, this is like throwing workers into the deep end of the pool. Drivers argued that long-haul jobs with long, irregular hours have the greatest safety risk and should be filled with the safest, most experienced drivers. Instead, they are populated with drivers with the least experience.

In other words, our training system is organized backwards. Drivers should be trained locally and employed locally at the start of their careers. Difficult, dangerous long-haul work should then be the well-paid choice of safe and experienced drivers.

California spends millions of dollars from public and private funds to train new drivers each year. Right now, it is likely that much of the money feeds into this suboptimal system and subsidizes high turnover. According to California Department of Motor Vehicles data, the state has about 500,000 people licensed to drive a big truck, but there is no way to tell whether or how those individuals are using those licenses. According to some estimates, the industry only needs about 165,000 drivers. Better tracking of where training dollars are going and fostering partnerships between successful trainers and good employers would maximize the return on those dollars and the benefit to workers.

By focusing that money on local training and local jobs, workers would have greater opportunity for longer, higher-quality training and good local entry-level jobs. Training partnerships could be particularly fruitful in agricultural trucking for several reasons. Agriculture offers many local jobs that would be much better for training new drivers. Local agricultural drivers often operate in relatively small areas and are more likely to frequent the same sites. While hours can be long, they are less than those worked by long-haul drivers. Agricultural drivers are typically home every night and work regular schedules. Furthermore, many agricultural jobs are seasonal. There is an annual need to hire thousands of workers for these jobs. Training programs could be timed to train and graduate new drivers to fulfill this need.

Finally, the most obvious characteristic of the truck labor market is the imbalance of men and women, with the latter making up just a few percent of all drivers (depending on the exact job and data source). Hiring more women is an enormous opportunity to increase the supply of agricultural drivers. Long-haul training and work are riskier and cause more hardships, particularly for women as well as younger men with children at home. Local training and first employment programs would be the single best thing we could do to increase the number of women driving in the industry.

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