Over the weekend a friend of mine, who is not in the trucking industry, sent me an article from Business Insider that made my jaw drop.
Known as the “Truck Driver Recruiting Guy” among my friends and family, it is common for people to randomly send me articles that mention the trucking industry.
It is rare for me to read an article that makes me question everything I know about truck driver recruiting.
The article’s introduction reads,
“Back in 1980, American truckers earned about $110,000 per year on average. Today, that number is half of that.”
This claim was so jarring that I decided to do a deep dive into how Business Insider came up with this statistic, how much drivers actually earned in 1980, and the bottom line of this discussion.
Did Truck Drivers Earn $110,000 Per Year on Average in 1980?
Long story short, no, truck drivers did not earn $110,000 per year on average in 1980. This myth is believed to have originated from a misinterpretation of data.
According to a report by the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the average income for owner-operator truck drivers in 1980 was around $40,000. However, this figure referred specifically to self-employed truck drivers who owned their own trucks and operated them as independent contractors.
The $110,000 figure appears to have emerged when this average income for owner-operators was incorrectly applied to all truck drivers, including those who were not self-employed. This mistake likely resulted from a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the original ATA report.
Over time, the myth gained traction and became widely circulated, despite being inaccurate.
What Was Truck Driver Salary 1980?
After finding out that the $110,000 salary claim was a myth, I then wondered how much truck drivers did earn in 1980.
In 1980, the average annual earnings for a company truck driver typically ranged from approximately $15,000 to $30,000.
As of April 2023, that is the equivalent of $55,223.85 – $110,447.69 per year.
These numbers closely resemble truck driver pay today.
Truckers who are more qualified, have plenty of experience and have a safe track record will find carriers willing to pay them upwards of six figures.
Company drivers that are new to the industry, do not have any endorsements, and are still building their resumes will earn closer to $50k per year.
What about owner-operators?
In 1980, the average annual earnings for an owner-operator truck driver typically ranged from approximately $25,000 to $40,000.
That is $92,039.75 – $147,263.59 in today’s terms.
Again, those numbers are on par with what I see owner-operators earning in the current market.
The Bottom Line
Business Insider (and many others) proposes the argument that the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 put an end to a good blue-collar, middle-class job.
They say that the act deregulated the trucking industry, causing increased competition which forced carriers to decline the wages of their drivers.
I disagree with this.
Truck driving is a strong blue-collar, middle-class job. While it may look different than it did in the 1980s, drivers can thrive in today’s market conditions.
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