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Biden wants to recruit new truck drivers, but the real issue may be retention

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Truck drivers are at the intersection of today's supply chain disruptions and labor issues. An apparent shortage of truck drivers during the pandemic makes it hard for packages to reach their destinations. President Biden recently announced a plan to try to recruit more drivers. But is the real problem recruitment or keeping drivers who are already in rigs on the road?

Pierre Laguerre is a former truck driver who founded an Airbnb-style company called Fleeting - and joins us now from Atlanta. Thanks so much for being with us.

PIERRE LAGUERRE: Thank you, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Tell us some of the things that attracted you and some of the things that sometimes are a problem for professional drivers and apparently have forced many people to leave.

LAGUERRE: There's so many systemic issues that exist in trucking. And I think driver turnover is serious, right? It's not just about recruiting drivers. It's, what is it that we need to do to keep those drivers? Well, the issue is this. The trucking industry does not provide no flexibility to truck drivers. Truckers are spending, on average, 250 nights away from their family. Three to seven drivers are suffering from diabetes. They have the highest rate in divorce than any other industry. When you put all of that together, who in their right mind would want to be a truck driver in today's age - to go spend 30 days on the road - with no upward mobility in sight?

SIMON: Tell us about the physical problem of being on the road, of being in the cab, of keeping your eyes on the road.

LAGUERRE: That's a great question - because people always think that a truck driver's job is just driving. What people don't understand - the amount of stress that goes into a driver's - mentally, right? First, the driver has to worry about his safety and the safety of others. He's operating a vehicle that takes at least the length of two football fields to come to a complete stop. A driver is only allowed to drive 11 hours per day. And they have to go sleep for 10 hours before they can start driving again. Nine out of ten, when that driver is pulling over to get that 10-hour rest, it's somewhere in the middle of the country. And sometimes those places look dangerous, especially for women drivers. And drivers cannot find truck stops to properly get their rest. Some of them is pulling over on the shoulder to sleep. By 6, 7 in the morning, the state trooper's knocking on their window. Hey, you got to get into a truck stop - which - interfering with your sleep. So if you really look at the entire ecosystem of trucking, again, it's not an industry that promotes health, that promotes wellness, that promotes good quality of life.

SIMON: Yeah. Those are a lot of challenges. Where do you begin to do something about that?

LAGUERRE: Well, so for us, even as a company - having - myself, with 17 years experience in the space, I realize the problem from multiple levels. And I understand, trucking is a high-volume, low-margin business. So it's very hard for trucking companies to provide part-time opportunity to truckers. And this is why our model, Fleeting - what we do is we create an Airbnb model that allows a trucker to create when he wants to work, for how long he wants to be on the road for. Now that gives that driver more control of his schedule and more control of his earnings.

SIMON: If you're using kind of the Airbnb model for trucking, is that necessarily going to raise wages for truck drivers, though, which is an important consideration?

LAGUERRE: Yes, absolutely. Currently, right now there's about 4 million truck drivers in the U.S. Ten percent of those drivers are owner operator, meaning they own their own trucks. They get to dictate where they go, who they haul for and how long they stay on the road. But that's only 10% of the industry. But the 90% of drivers - those are drivers that work for companies. They have zero control of their schedules, zero control of their earnings. Of course they want that same flexibility, like owner operators. But it's hard to own a truck. And it's hard to manage the logistics business. We give the same 90% of drivers the flexibility that the 10% of the industry drivers have. So instead of drivers getting paid per mile, we have a split where everybody walks out evenly. We already beat an industry average. Our drivers are already starting at $76,000 a year on our platform. Meanwhile, the industry average is $45,000 a year.

SIMON: The Biden administration has this truck action plan that calls for speeding up the commercial licensing process and expanding the apprenticeship program. Will that help, do you think?

LAGUERRE: I mean, anything will help right now for sure, right? But, for me, the question would be as well, how long would this last? Well, we can get a thousand or 20,000 young men to get their CDL today. Are we going to change the ecosystem in trucking that's going to help them get better, that's going to help them grow and help them become much better entrepreneurs or much better drivers? It's not just creating a curriculum and help them get their CDL and then put them back in the industry and say, hey, go figure it out. I think again, yes, although that can be great - that's a great step towards, you know, fixing the problem. But I also believe that we really need to look at the deep root cause of why drivers leaving and why nobody wants to be a truck driver.

SIMON: Pierre Laguerre is a former truck driver - CEO of Fleeting. Thank you so much for being with us, sir. And happy holidays to you and your family.

LAGUERRE: Thank you, Scott - appreciate it. And happy holidays to your family as well. And happy holidays to all the truckers out there that keep our world moving. So let's give them some love. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.