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Truckers Who Flooded the Market During Covid Now Struggle to Pay Their Bills

Truckers flooded the market during Covid
Photo Source: Reuters/Rebecca Cook

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a notable influx of truckers entered the market, seeking opportunities during a time of increased demand for transportation services. 

However, this once-promising surge has given way to a stark reality: many of these truckers are now confronting significant financial hardships, grappling with the daunting task of meeting their bills. 

The initial optimism that accompanied their entry into the market has faded, leaving them navigating the complexities of an industry that, despite its critical role in supply chains, has posed unforeseen challenges during these unprecedented times.

Trucker Grapples with Financial Challenges 

Amid the Covid pandemic, as consumers adapted their lifestyles to lockdowns and supply chains faced disruptions, Arnesha Barron seized the opportunity to realize her dream of launching her trucking company. 

The 39-year-old single mother, with six years of experience driving a semitruck for a trucking company, made the bold decision in 2021 when shipping rates soared. 

She secured a $175,000 loan for a new truck, experiencing initial success with monthly profits reaching $20,000.

Arnesha Barron refueling her truck at Pilot Truck Stop in Lebanon
Arnesha Barron poses as she fuels up her truck at Pilot Truck Stop in Lebanon. Photo Source: NBC News

“It was amazing. I was a teen parent. I had my first child at 15 and all the odds were against me,” Barron said. “I had all three of my children graduate from high school while I was in a truck and I still made it happen.”

However, like many truck drivers nationwide, Barron's prosperity was short-lived. Over the past year, a decline in shipping rates has left her, and others who invested heavily in the trucking boom, grappling with financial challenges. 

‘The Good Times Have Gone’

The trucking industry witnessed a 50% surge in the number of companies, often comprising a lone truck and driver, from the pandemic's onset to the end of the previous year.

Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, attributed this growth to record pay from companies desperate to move goods and social media influencers touting trucking as a fast track to wealth.

“Basically, the good times have come and gone,” said Spencer. “There’s a shakeout in the works right now, and it’s more than likely going to continue throughout this year.”

As consumer spending normalized and the volume of shipped goods returned to pre-pandemic levels, the excess supply of drivers has led to intensified competition, resulting in reduced shipping rates. 

Dean Croke, principal analyst for DAT, estimates that 15,000 trucking companies, primarily single-truck owner-operators, have ceased operations since October 2022.

Another 2,000 carriers may exit the market before achieving equilibrium between driver supply and demand.

Barron's story echoes the broader trend, as her monthly profits plummeted from $20,000 in March 2022 to just over $3,300 by July, following fuel price spikes and decreased demand. 

Struggling to cover family expenses, including a $2,600 rent and a $1,400 monthly truck loan payment, she ultimately surrendered her truck in August, incurring a $7,000 penalty and losing her $4,000 down payment.

“Everything was good, but once the pandemic slowed down, there wasn’t a high demand anymore. So I couldn’t make the money that I needed to make to be able to live and then the fuel prices went up too,” said Barron. 

Trucking Turns From Pandemic to Prosperity–Thanks to Covid-19

The surge in demand for drivers in late 2020 and throughout 2021, fueled by increased online shopping and a booming housing market, prompted many to enter the trucking industry, enticed by the prospect of substantial earnings. 

Rico Muhammad, a veteran in the industry hosting a podcast, notes that a wave of workers transitioned into trucking careers during the pandemic, either as company employees or by establishing their own operations.

Driven by viral TikTok and YouTube videos glamorizing the simplicity of launching a trucking company and promising substantial profits, an influx of new drivers flooded the industry. 

A notable YouTube video in August 2022, boasting over 3 million views, showcased a 19-year-old claiming to have earned $159,000 in the first three months of starting his trucking venture.

“A lot of people jumped in because of all of the hype and everything that was pushed on social media making people think that they could make some quick money,” said Muhammad. “You had a ton of people jumping into the industry, and now you have a mass exodus out of the industry of people going out of the business. It’s kind of like a culling of the herd.”

Even President Joe Biden advocated for trucking careers, unveiling a "trucking action plan" in December 2021 to fortify the workforce and address supply chain issues. 

President Joe Biden speaking to a crowd
President Joe Biden speaking to the crowd on the South Lawn of the White House in April, urging Americans to consider careers in trucking industry. Photo Source: NBC News

Inflation’s Impact on the Trucking Industry

However, as the number of drivers increased, demand waned. Inflation squeezed household budgets, diverting spending from goods to travel, entertainment, and dining out. 

Simultaneously, higher interest rates stifled housing construction, and port delays eased, diminishing the need for drivers.

Gitonna Smith, a former nightclub worker who transitioned to trucking during the pandemic, saw her weekly pay drop from $2,500 to $1,200 as per-mile rates decreased and job opportunities dwindled. Despite planning to continue until year-end, uncertainty looms. 

“When I first started they’d book me for loads back to back to back to back. I’d always be running,” said Smith. “But now it’s to the point where they might book one load, and then I have to sit for hours until they find something else for me. It’s really bad.”

“I’m praying and hoping that it gets better because I love trucking, it’s easy for me, I love to travel. So I’m just going to hang in there,” Smith added. “I’ll give it maybe to the end of the year, and we’ll go from there.”

Monica Garcia, who closed her trucking company due to various pressures, exemplifies the challenges faced by established businesses, NBC News reported. 

“When the fuel went to $5.50 a gallon that was the nail in the coffin for me. I had to shut my doors,” said Garcia, who is now working in real estate. “Between that and truck repairs, I didn’t have enough cushion. My profitability went down with the drop in rates. Then when the fuel went up and I needed to put my truck in the shop, that was it.” 

The spot market, dominated by solo drivers or small firms bidding on individual jobs, experienced a drastic profit decline from around $1 a mile in 2021 to about 3 cents a mile today. This has left many drivers unable to build sufficient cash reserves for maintenance, exacerbating challenges for both independent contractors and larger firms with contracts.

Potential Driver Shortages if Independent Contractors Leave

Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations, expresses concern about potential driver shortages if independent contractors leave, creating a cycle of industry booms and busts. 

“My concern is that when we do start to get more freight these independent contractors are going to leave to go do something else,” said Costello. “So I would fully anticipate, whether it’s next year or at some point, we could absolutely have a situation where the driver shortage that lessened could just skyrocket back to all- time highs.”

Moreover, for those still hanging on, like David Coates, who started in 2018 and now leases a truck, hopes hinge on a market correction. Coates, reflecting a sentiment shared by others, is skeptical about a career change and anticipates that a "trucking purge" may rebalance the market.

“The thing that might change this is if there is a trucking purge where, basically, all these new companies go out of business and things start to balance out,” Coates said.  “A lot of companies have to go out of business.” 

As the industry grapples with challenges, Barron, having faced setbacks, remains hopeful about her future in trucking. 

After leasing a truck in April following the loss of her previous one, she's back to covering her monthly expenses and aims to eventually own her truck again.

“I’m thankful for all the trials and tribulations because they don’t do nothing but make me grow,” said Barron as she drove her truck across Arizona. “It opened my eyes to see the world in different hands. Never be comfortable because things can change for you, just like that.”

The Rise, Fall, and Hope of Truckers Amid Shifting Tides in the Industry

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the surge of truckers flooding the market during heightened demand has given way to a sobering reality of financial struggle. The optimism that accompanied their entry has dissipated, revealing the complexities of an industry vital to supply chains but fraught with unforeseen challenges during these unprecedented times.

Arnesha Barron's journey, from seizing opportunities amid the pandemic to facing significant financial challenges, mirrors the broader trend. The initial prosperity, marked by surging shipping rates and a wave of new entrants, has yielded to a decline in rates, intensified competition, and financial hardships for those heavily invested in the trucking boom.

As the trucking industry experiences a shakeout, marked by an increased number of companies exiting operations, the impact is tangible. For Barron and many others, monthly profits have dwindled, leaving them grappling with the harsh realities of rising fuel prices, decreased demand, and financial obligations. The ripple effect extends beyond individual drivers, affecting the entire industry's dynamics.

The surge in demand that prompted the influx of new drivers was, in part, fueled by social media hype, online shopping, and a booming housing market. 

However, as economic conditions shifted, household spending patterns changed, and the need for drivers diminished. The aftermath reflects a mass exodus from the industry, emphasizing the importance of a balanced and sustainable approach to workforce management.

As the trucking industry navigates these challenges, there's a recognition that a "trucking purge" might be necessary for market correction. Concerns about potential driver shortages loom, emphasizing the delicate balance between industry booms and busts. Despite the hardships faced by truckers like Barron, there remains hope for resilience and growth, symbolizing the strength needed to weather the uncertainties inherent in the world of trucking.


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