The trucking industry often takes advantage of new drivers and thrusts them into an unsustainable employment cycle resulting in dissatisfied workers, massive turnover and chronic labor shortages, according to a forthcoming book. Truck driving, once a way to climb the nation's economic ladder, now has fallen short of that promise, says Stephen Viscelli, author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.

"The transformation of labor markets in trucking has disempowered workers to the point where it’s rigged in the favor of employers. Driving doesn't provide the kind of opportunities that people were expecting," he says. "People within the industry know all the pieces of the puzzle that I write about in the book. Nobody in the industry is going to be surprised that drivers are misled or that they misunderstand what’s happening to them or that companies offload economic risk to them."

Viscelli is an economic sociologist who focuses on labor markets and has studied the trucking industry more than ten years. He is a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College and Senior Associate of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. He not only interviewed drivers, managers, shippers and others involved in the industry, but he worked and trained as an Over-The-Road driver for six months. 

He says that the industry is unfair to drivers at every stage of their careers. "You can see evidence of it in every step of the labor process from the advertising of incomes that aren’t actually happening to the segments [like contracting] that people are being attracted to but don't turn out as expected."

It starts with training.

"The industry now has systematically offloaded a large chunk of their training costs to the public and workers," says Viscelli. "Essentially you have anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 workers when times are good circling into the industry and being burdened with debt for training… The cost of training contracts that many companies use also serves as a form of incentive for people to stay. Some would call it debt where you’re burdened with a $3,000 to $5,000 charge at 24 percent interest or whatever if you don’t work for the company for a year.

"Most of the workers I interviewed coming into the industry don’t understand that. They only see it on the back side. The more experienced drivers know this is happening [to the new drivers]. They talk about the 'CDL mill' and the 'professional steering wheel holder,' and it’s all very well known to folks who are in the industry. It’s just the people coming in who aren’t as aware."

At the next stage of a driver's career comes the realization that they're working without being paid. "There are tons of unpaid time sitting at docks and in traffic and the shifting of all these inefficiencies to new drivers. The inexperienced drivers that most big truckload companies are relying on don’t know any other way to do trucking so they don’t have a problem with pay-per-mile or sitting unpaid at docks - at first."