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A career truck driver on why his is no longer ‘a middle-class job’

Jobs in the trucking industry are increasingly threatened by technology and the rise of driverless trucks. But what explains the contradictory dynamic between fears of job elimination and a current shortage of truck drivers in the U.S.? The NewsHour returns to the unusual story of driver Finn Murphy, who left college and a literary family for the open road. Paul Solman reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last month, the "NewsHour" brought you a series of stories looking at the future of work, including a report in which economics correspondent Paul Solman explored the seeming contradiction between the fear of job loss due to the rise of driverless trucks and the current shortage of truck drivers in America.

    Tonight, Paul takes a closer look at the life of one of those drivers, and the state of his profession.

    It's part of his Weekly Series on economics, Making Sense.

  • Paul Solman:

    So now, when did you first start driving?

  • Finn Murphy:

    1981.

  • Paul Solman:

    You were how old?

  • Finn Murphy:

    Twenty-one.

  • Paul Solman:

    And why?

  • Finn Murphy:

    Why? Oh.

  • Paul Solman:

    A man whose job may or may not be threatened by technology, long-haul truck driver Finn Murphy.

  • Finn Murphy:

    I was at Colby College.

  • Paul Solman:

    Right.

  • Finn Murphy:

    And…

  • Paul Solman:

    Up in Maine.

  • Finn Murphy:

    Waterville, Maine. And then I would come back to Connecticut in the summers, and I would work for Callahan Brothers Moving and Storage.

    And I took a road trip with a driver. It was my first ride in a big truck. And it was amazing, over the George Washington Bridge in a big truck, down Route 13, through Delaware, Chesapeake Bay Bridge tunnel, into Virginia Beach. I had never been in the South before.

    I was seduced by it. I loved it. And that's when I decided I wasn't going to finish college.

  • Paul Solman:

    And so Murphy got his commercial license and his career as a truck driver and professional mover of high-priced home furnishings.

    He's distilled the experience into a memoir, "The Long Haul: A Trucker's Tales of Life on the Road," describing an odd job for a college kid whose father was a well-known illustrator, the cartoonist behind "Prince Valiant."

  • Finn Murphy:

    After I told him I was leaving college after completing three years and was going to work for North American Van Lines, he came down and he handed me a bill for three years of college and three years of rent, and said, "If this is the path that you choose, then you need to pay me back for the college that you have squandered."

    I never did pay him, and he never did ask me again.

  • Paul Solman:

    But what drove a Colby kid from a literacy-Laden family — brother Cullen is editor at large of "Vanity Fair" — to hit the highways?

    It can't just be the allure of the road. I mean…

  • Finn Murphy:

    Well, it was the work too. Moving people's stuff is very fun and complicated and hard. I enjoy the camaraderie of working with a group of men. I mean, that's how human beings lived for 100,000 years. We all lived in small societies, and we all did manual labor, and we all did it with are our brothers.

  • Paul Solman:

    But there was a long period of time when you didn't drive, right?

  • Finn Murphy:

    Correct. So I drove for 10 years in the '80s. And then I drove — I have been driving since 2009, so another just 10 years now. So, I have had two stints of 10 years.

  • Paul Solman:

    And 20 years in between.

  • Finn Murphy:

    And 20 years in between.

  • Paul Solman:

    In those two decades, he and his wife started a successful cashmere-importing business, and Murphy became a city councilman in Nantucket.

    That life all fell apart when his marriage did, so he dusted off his commercial driver's license and got back on the road.

  • Finn Murphy:

    See, the thing is, when you're a long-haul driver, you get to leave a whole bunch of stuff behind you.

    When I climb up into the truck, and I turn on this engine, and I know I'm going to be gone for four months, I don't have to think about things. And there's a lot of guys like me out there that are running away from situations or bankruptcy or bad relationships or many things. This is a great way to be out on the lam and still get paid.

  • Paul Solman:

    Driving again, and helping move people and their possessions around the country, Murphy salvaged a sense of purpose.

  • Finn Murphy:

    And I was making a ton of money, because all I was doing was high-end executive relocation. So I'm moving all these rich execs.

  • Paul Solman:

    How much were you making a year? How much do you make a year?

  • Finn Murphy:

    Well, if I worked 50 weeks a year, I could make a couple hundred grand.

  • Paul Solman:

    But that's the absolute high end of…

  • Finn Murphy:

    It's the high end of trucking. It's the high end of trucking. A furniture mover who's doing corporate relocation is going to be the high end, yes.

  • Paul Solman:

    But what does a typical trucker make?

  • Finn Murphy:

    I think the average is about $36,000 to $40,000 a year. And that's for a guy who's he's getting paid by the mile. He could be gone for months at a time. This isn't a highly skilled or highly paying job at all.

    I read "The Economist" every week. I'm probably the only long-haul driver who reads "The Economist" every week, and this is a conundrum right now in today's labor market, which is, we're at 3.9 percent unemployment, but wages are stagnant.

  • Paul Solman:

    Indeed, wages have barely kept up with inflation in the past year. For truckers, as for so many in jobs that aren't highly skilled, they have fared far worse for decades.

  • Finn Murphy:

    Compared to what this industry paid in the 1970s, we're way behind the eight ball, because this was a solid middle-class job back then, even into the 1980s. And now it's a poverty profession.

  • Paul Solman:

    And why was it so well-paying back then?

  • Finn Murphy:

    It was unionized, and you had freight rates. You had a regulated freight market that was regulated by the federal government, just like the airlines.

    This all happened in the Motor Carrier Act of 1935 with FDR, because all the trucking companies were going out of business.

  • Paul Solman:

    And this is when he propped up prices.

  • Finn Murphy:

    Exactly. He did it with the airlines. He did it with the trucking business. He did with the railroads. And that's why these were middle-class jobs, because you had the management and unions working together, because the prices were fixed.

  • Paul Solman:

    And then that was deregulated first under Jimmy Carter, or at least the airlines were.

  • Finn Murphy:

    Yes, it started with Jimmy Carter in trucking, and it ended — was finished up by Ronald Reagan.

  • Paul Solman:

    But, of course, that means it's cheaper for the consumer, right?

  • Finn Murphy:

    It was a great consumer benefit. Freight rates fell almost overnight.

    And this is the question. This is the question that everybody needs to ask as a citizen of any place, which is, how much money do you want to save, at the expense of good jobs, community character?

    You know, we all have our $9 sneakers from Wal-Mart now. That's great. But in order to get those $9 sneakers, we had to export all of our manufacturing. So now we don't have good jobs, but we have $9 sneakers. Is that a good tradeoff? In my opinion, no.

  • Paul Solman:

    Well a lot of Americans seem to agree with you. I mean, that is a lot of the impetus behind Donald Trump's make America great again, right?

  • Finn Murphy:

    It is.

    And I certainly wouldn't want to be cast into the Trump camp, and I don't care who knows it. But, you know, 250 million people have been taken out of poverty in the last 30 years in the Far East in and in other places. And a lot of that has to do with free trade and the decisions that countries like the United States have made.

    And I think — I think that's great. But we need to keep our eye on the ball about our own people. And the middle class has been hollowed out in the United States, certainly in the trucking business. And I'm not an expert on anything else. But this is not a middle-class job anymore.

  • Paul Solman:

    Well, it's a middle-class job for somebody like you.

  • Finn Murphy:

    It's an upper-class job for somebody like me.

  • Paul Solman:

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

  • Finn Murphy:

    Well, it's an upper-class income. It's still not an upper-class job.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is economics correspondent Paul Solman out on the road.

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