The ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ Myth of Truck Driving

There have been many attempts over the years to explain why the trucking industry cannot seem to recruit enough young drivers. Those attempts have led to plenty of speculation, including the idea that the glamorization of truck driving in the 1970s is what made the profession so appealing back then. This is known in some circles as the ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ effect.

Is the Smokey and the Bandit effect real or just a myth? Recent stories making the rounds in the mainstream media suggest it is real. Furthermore, such stories also suggest that because the effect has worn off, young people no longer want to be truck drivers.

The contention presented in this post is as follows: the Smokey and the Bandit (SB) effect is either a total myth or a reality that has had very little effect on actual recruiting. A detailed explanation is offered below.

The History of Trucking

The trucking industry is one that did not rise on the back of the popular 1970s Burt Reynolds film from which the SB effect got its name. In fact, commercial trucking has been around since trucks were first invented back in the early 20th century. The history of trucking is one of a healthy industry offering solid employment for anyone willing to take the wheel.

Long before trucking was glamorized in films and on television, millions of truck drivers were already carrying freight across the country. The only thing the entertainment industry did for trucking is portray it in an unrealistic light that may have provoked a small number of people to go on to become truck drivers. Just remember that the Smokey and the Bandit film was popular only for a short time in comparison to the long history of trucking.

So if the glamorization of trucking and its subsequent drop-off are not to blame for the more challenging recruiting environment of today, what is? One need only look at the reasons people pursue specific careers to find the answer.

Good Pay and Job Stability

Remember the stereotype that says every mother wants her son to become a doctor or lawyer? The stereotype is rooted in some element of truth. The reality is that people take jobs because they have to work. They choose careers based on pay and job stability first, followed by their passions and interests.

Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, truck driving was a lot more financially lucrative. Truck drivers were among the highest-paid collar workers back then according to C.R. England, a trucking company with nearly 100 years under its belt. Unfortunately, the 2007/2008 financial crash changed that. Truck drivers still make a good living, but they do not make what they used to in real terms.

Something else to consider: we have spent the better part of two decades convincing people that the only path to success is a college degree. We have convinced our young people not to make careers out of blue-collar jobs like trucking, construction trades, etc. As such, young people do not look at CDL training as valuable. They look at truck driving as a career of last resort, only to be pursued if everything else fails.

No, it wasn’t the glamorization of the trucking industry that convinced so many young people to become truck drivers. It was good pay, respect, and job stability. If we want to solve the truck driver shortage as it now stands, we need to return to those days. Giving young people good reasons to become truck drivers will draw them to the industry.

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