Steve Viscelli WITH A TRUCKER (MUST USE).jpg Photo: Armando Viscelli
Steve Viscelli, right, author of The Big Rig: Trucking & the Decline of the American Dream, spent over a decade studying the industry and interviewing truckers.

Why a trucker’s life is so hard … and 10 ways to make it better

Looks can be deceiving, and there’s no better example of that than Steve Viscelli. Check out at his black-bearded mug, that beefy chest, those steel-cord forearms. Is this a grizzled, tough-guy trucker or a multi-degreed, Ivy League sociologist and author?

Turns out he’s both.

The author of The Big Rig: Trucking & the Decline of the American Dream, Viscelli spent over a decade studying the industry and interviewing truckers. A sociologist, he is a Robert and Penny Fox Family Pavilion Scholar and a Senior Fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Why trucking? The Ph.D’ed scholar and teacher simply liked it.

“I was fascinated by the fact that truckers were clearly working so hard with incredible hours,” he told American Trucker. “I understood the freedom of the road, which is a big attraction for drivers. At the same time, in the 2000s there was the increased use of computers and technology. I was interested in whether that was going to cut into their sense of autonomy. And now there’s clearly a lot of concern about Big Brother, and driver-facing cameras.”

Viscelli, 43, grew up in Rome, NY, and now lives in Philadelphia. He earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Colgate, a master’s degree from Syracuse University, and a Ph.D. is sociology from Indiana University.

He explained that truckers have gone from great times to less than average.

“From the 1950s to the late 1970s, when the trucking industry was deregulated, truckers were the best paid and most powerful segment of the U.S. working class,” he said. “But things have become bad regarding conditions and pay. So in 2005 I left my low-paid but relatively comfortable life as a graduate student in sociology and became a long-haul trucker [see accompanying story] to begin finding out why.”

Viscelli spent 13 years in the academic study of trucking. He says much about trucking has changed even in the small time period.

“Since I started there have been really important, revolutionary changes for what trucking is,” he said. “Some things we can see really clearly, like e-commerce, and other things are on the horizon, like electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles.

“ELDs are a big issue now, and we’re seeing what it all means. They are not a huge story for most drivers. But I think it was a missed opportunity. We’re not going to fix Hours of Service because the systems are fundamentally flawed in how they’re monitored. Length of haul has declined significantly in the last decade or so. A greater percentage of driver time is spent waiting and doing non-driving tasks that these electronic logs are not going to pick up.”

The driver shortage

The other big story is driver shortage noted Viscelli.

“This thing has been slowly rolling toward an obvious problem,” he stressed. “The industry is not attracting and retaining younger workers. This is something everyone has known, but there has not been a respectful approach by the industry to this problem.

“Tens of thousands of people who could have been long-term truckers have come into the industry and are put into a one-year training contract. They have to pay back the training so they can’t move. The company pays them well below market wages. They sit unpaid at docks for hours at a time. They’re on the road for weeks. A lot of them come in having been promised better wages. They’re told they can make $55,000 but end up making $34,000 and working 80 hours a week. It’s not even minimum wage. So they decide instead of basically making $8 an hour they can go work for at least $10 and see their families.”

Viscelli shared his top 10 list of ways to help truck drivers out there and ease the driver shortage that everyone knows is real.

Photo: Armando Viscelli

Steve Viscelli, author of The Big Rig: Trucking & the Decline of the American Dream.

1. End trucking company training contracts. “And the public subsidies of training. Bottom of the barrel companies don’t absorb the full cost of their turnover. They’re externalizing it to things like the G.I. Bill, funds for displaced workers and all kinds of programs that states get federal money for. Trucking companies, because they’re not paying that cost, don’t have to bear the consequences of high turnover completely. We need to start looking at the quality of jobs and the retention of workers in the jobs that people are getting public money to train for. We shouldn’t be subsidizing low wages.

“Workers come into these company CDL schools thinking they’re going to job training when they’re actually going to a job interview. A lot of these companies hire less than half of the people they bus out to these programs. Then if they hire you they give you a bill for up to $7,000, and say if you don’t work for us for a year you owe them up to $7,000 with interest.

“A lot of workers come into these jobs already indebted, so it’s a huge motivator. These contracts make the companies profitable. But they create a bottom to the industry.”

2. Move to an apprenticeship model. “Where workers don’t come in sight unseen after being bused somewhere. You get in a truck with a truck driver and see what it’s actually like before you have to sign a contract.”

3. Institute an industry-wide requirement for paying a truck for all the time it’s at a shipper’s location. “It can’t be a company by company thing. Just have a standard rate at a customer’s location that goes to the truck with some of the money going to the driver at that location.”

4. Pay drivers for all the hours worked. “Drivers are paid by the mile because back in the day it was impossible to tell what they were doing or where they were or whatever. Today’s pay model is a legacy from those days. Modern satellite technology makes it possible to know exactly where drivers are. So paying them by the mile is just a way to shift the inefficiencies of the system onto the driver. I did the job myself for six months and it sucks to sit at a dock and not get paid. The way to show that you respect someone’s work is to pay them for it.”

5. Accurately count all hours. “You can’t pay them unless you can monitor them properly.”

6. Pay drivers for the time they spend on the road. “Drivers often sit at a truck stop for two or three days. The company says they’re not working. No, but they’re in the middle of nowhere, stranded. The company says they can do whatever they want. We have to get the industry out of this mindset that when drivers aren’t working but are out on the road it’s part of the job. There needs to be a recognition of that. Otherwise the companies will say there’s no freight movement from July 2 to July 5 so take the time off wherever you are.”

7. Clarify the independent contractor relationship. “Once you get them through the training, too many are about to quit after the first year. What is the independent contractor and company relationship? Change has to happen at the federal level. We have to have some clarity on the rules. Now there are all these lawsuits. The companies don’t know what to do. The drivers don’t know what to do. One state says one thing, the federal government says another. Different agencies within the federal government are saying different things. It’s not rocket science. We need clarity on what’s going to be considered a small business owner or independent contractor. Maybe we need a whole other classification.”

8. End the abusive relationships where people are claiming to be a small business but you get all your freight from one company and they set the price. “You can have $1,500 to $2,000 in expenses a week you have to overcome before you get paid. If all the drivers were instead company employees they would at least get minimum wage. Companies need to resolve this issue.”

9. Try collective bargaining. “It’s worth at least keeping in mind. In the past truckers actually did have a union that represented them in collective bargaining.”

10. Provide more accurate information to workers. “Let them know what they are actually going to earn. End the collusion to depress wages. The Department of Labor is also complicit in this. If you go to the Bureau of Labor statistics page and look at heavy duty truck drivers you’re going to get an annual salary in the $40k range, with the hourly wage about $20. But that’s because they simply divide it by a 40-hour week. But get it up to 70 or more hours and you’re looking at a $10 an hour job, which does not justify living on the road and all the health consequences and all that.

“There’s lots of benchmarking companies doing things that are pretty unsavory. Drivers can’t do it on their side, so maybe let’s balance the information. We’ve got a lot of misinformation coming from companies with pretty accurate benchmarking. The companies know what drivers are actually making, but tell them something else to get them in the door.”

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