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T is for Truck Driver

by Nick Dobbins
December 2016

With both a low barrier to entry and high demand for their services, Heavy and Tractor Trailer Truck Driver is one of the most popular occupations in Minnesota. Truck drivers are differentiated from other professional drivers by the fact that they operate a truck with a capacity of more than three tons. They transport materials, maintain their vehicle, and keep a log of their actions and deliveries. Truck drivers are responsible for moving all types of goods, from home appliances to livestock to fuel, across the state and country. Their work is, in many ways, to act as the life blood of our economy, hauling the components that keep our system working.

Where doctors and other white collar workers are often exhaustively trained and very highly paid, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers are in many ways the polar opposite. As is the case with many driving occupations, becoming a professional truck driver requires little to no occupation-specific education save a few weeks of driving classes, and even that is optional in some places. Working as a truck driver does, however, require a commercial driver's license, for which the applicant must take a battery of tests. Additionally, there are a number of endorsements that a driver might seek out if they wished to drive more specialized vehicle. For example, specific endorsements are necessary for someone who wishes to drive a school bus or a vehicle hauling hazardous materials. Those endorsements require additional tests and may include some mandatory training.

Many who pursue driving as a career do not have the time, resources, or desire to put in long years of training. In spite of the relatively low bar for entry, the occupation generally pays a good wage. As such, it's a career that attracts a large number of workers who are looking to earn a decent wage without years of waiting and student loans.

As Table 1 shows, the median hourly wage for Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers is $20.13, and there are over 34 thousand truck drivers in the state, representing more than 1.2 percent of all workers in Minnesota. Unlike more highly paid, highly specialized professions like surgeons or chemical engineers, truck drivers are not concentrated in the metro area, but work all over the state. They are actually spread out geographically more evenly than the population as a whole. Truck driving is an occupation that is open to many if not most Minnesotans, regardless of education level or place of residence. Its practitioners come from all walks of life and live all over the state.

Table 1. Employment, Wage, and Location for Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers
Geography Employment Median Hourly Wage
Minnesota (Statewide) 34,550 $20.13
Seven County Met Area 14,980 $21.09
Central Minnesota 5,130 $20.76
Southwest Minnesota 3,850 $17.67
Southeast Minnesota 3,550 $20.93
Northwest Minnesota 3,120 $17.79
Northeast Minnesota 2,060 $18.39
Source: Minnesota Occupational Employment and Wage estimates, First Quarter 2016 Minnesota

Looking forward

Judging entirely from official occupational projections, the outlook in for truck drivers looks modestly encouraging. Table 2 shows that the occupation is expected to add over 1,500 new positions between 2014 and 2024, representing growth of 4 percent. Additionally, there are projected to be over 6,000 replacement openings as current truck drivers leave the occupation. Overall, 7,920 openings are projected. There is, however, a new variable to consider which does not lend itself easily to precise projections. The trucking industry appears set to absorb technological changes in the coming years, so the very idea of what it will mean to drive a vehicle in the near future is being called into question.

Table 2: Long Term Occupation Projections
Occupation Estimated 2014 Employment Projected 2024 Employment Percent Change 2014-2024 Numeric Change 2014-2024 Replacement Openings Total Openings
Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers 37,673 39,186 4% 1,513 6,410 7,920
Source: Minnesota Occupation Projections, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development

The changing technology could affect more than just the heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver occupation in the state. As Table 3 shows, many Minnesotans hold similar jobs driving light trucks or buses, as well as other occupations centered heavily on specialized vehicle operation. While 34,550 Minnesotans are employed as heavy truck drivers, another 36,490 work in other occupations where operating a vehicle is the primary responsibility. Combined, these account 2.6 percent of all jobs in Minnesota and 2.5 percent of all jobs in the United States.

Table 3: Minnesota and U.S. Employment in Vehicle Operation Occupations
Occupation Minnesota Employment United States Employment
Total, All Occupations 2,772,240 137,896,660
Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers 34,550 1,678,280
Bus Drivers, School or Special Client 15,130 505,560
Light Truck or Delivery Services Drivers 14,140 826,510
Taxi Drivers and Chauffeurs 4,320 180,960
Bus Drivers, Transit and Intercity 2,830 168,620
Ambulance Drivers and Attendants, Except Emergency Medical Technicians 70 19,950
Source: Minnesota Occupational Employment and Wage estimates, First Quarter 2016

While laws, customs, and technology would need to continue to change, occupations focused on driving a vehicle could see dramatic changes in coming years. Given the rapid advancement of autonomous automobile technology, one could argue that the question is no longer whether goods and people will ever use self-driving vehicles as a primary mode of transportation, but rather how long will it take until that future arrives, and how our culture and industries will adapt to this burgeoning technology. But as of the Second Quarter of 2016, there were 2,006 jobs available for Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers with an average wage of $16.16/hour. This is a vacancy rate of 5.8 percent which is better than the statewide rate for all occupations which is 3.6 percent.

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