How Much Do Truck Drivers Make?
by Erika Nieman | May 13, 2022
Supply and demand often dictate the price of goods and services. When certain services are in high demand, the price skyrockets. That could be what’s going on with trucker salaries at the moment. Many products get from point A to point B on a truck, so truck drivers play a crucial role in keeping the United States economy moving.
Recently, there’s been a shortage of drivers, which has contributed to supply chain concerns. In response, certain retailers have announced that they’ll pay new truckers six-figure salaries. If you’re interested in starting a career in the freight and transportation business, it’s helpful to know your career options and average salary expectations.
Types of Truckers
Not every type of trucker gets behind the wheel of a semi. Some drive cargo vans, passenger buses, or vans. The type of license you need and the amount you earn vary based on the type of driving you do. Examples of trucker types include:
- Delivery drivers: Delivery drivers are often responsible for the last mile of a package’s journey. They deliver packages to homes and businesses, usually in cargo vans or pickup trucks. Also known as light truck drivers, delivery drivers need a standard driver’s license and may need to get a commercial driver’s license (CDL).
- Heavy and tractor-trailer drivers: People driving semi-trucks and tractor-trailers need to earn a CDL before driving. They are usually responsible for operating vehicles with a weight over 26,000 pounds. Heavy and tractor-trailer drivers usually need to drive for longer distances than delivery drivers.
- Flatbed driver: Some drivers specialize in flatbed trucks with an open-air trailer attached to a semi-truck. Drivers need to know how to securely fasten objects to the flatbed to keep them from rolling off.
- Refrigerated truck driver: Refrigerated truck drivers operate vehicles with refrigerated trailers attached. The job requires more training than operating a standard trailer, since the driver usually also has to monitor the temperature of the refrigerated trailer and make sure it doesn’t get too warm or cold.
- Tanker truck driver: Tanker truck drivers transport gas or liquids in cylindrical tanks attached to trailers. They might transport oil, milk, or gasoline in the tanker. Depending on the materials they transport, a tanker truck driver might need the N endorsement on their CDL.
- Hazmat truck driver: Hazmat truck drivers transport hazardous materials, such as flammable materials, gas, or chemicals. Before driving a vehicle with hazardous cargo, a truck driver needs the H endorsement on their CDL.
CDLs and Endorsements
If you’re interested in a career as a truck driver, particularly a heavy truck driver, you’ll need to earn a CDL. The requirements for a CDL can vary by state but typically include taking a driving test and passing a knowledge test.
Once you have the CDL, you’ll have to maintain a clean driving record. You’ll also generally need to have a physical exam every other year to demonstrate that you’re in good physical health.
Along with earning a CDL, you might decide to take additional tests to earn an endorsement on your license. With endorsements, you’re authorized to operate trucks carrying special cargo or materials. Endorsements increase your flexibility as a driver and can lead to higher-paying jobs.
Company Drivers vs. Owner-Operators
On the surface, company drivers and owner-operators look similar. Both are often responsible for loading and operating vehicles. But there are significant differences between the two, particularly when getting paid.
Company drivers are employees who work for a particular company. They often operate equipment the company owns and drive on routes assigned by their employer.
Owner-operators are usually self-employed. They might own their vehicle outright or, more commonly, lease it or have a lease-to-own agreement with a company.
Operators with a lease agreement are like a combination of a company driver and a full-fledged owner-operator. They need to pay the company that’s leasing them the vehicle, and they most likely take work from the company leasing to them.
Lease-to-own operators lease a vehicle from a company with the understanding that they will eventually make enough payments to own the vehicle outright. They then usually get assignments from the company or another trucking company.
Self-employed owner-operators who own their vehicles outright have a fair amount of independence, as they can choose who they drive for and how much they drive. They also have the most responsibility, as they have to cover all of their expenses, find all their gigs, and take care of their trucks.
How Do Truck Drivers Get Paid?
Truck drivers get paid in a few different ways, depending on their agreement with a trucking company. Payment options include:
- Per mile: Per-mile pay means a driver gets compensated based on how far they drive a load. The driver’s earnings per mile can vary considerably from company to company. The type of loads a person drives also influences their per-mile rate. Some companies offer bonuses when drivers reach certain mile milestones.
- Per hour: Often, delivery drivers get paid by the hour rather than the mile, particularly if they’re driving in a local area. For example, a driver who delivers packages in a city isn’t going to drive that many miles in a day but might drive for an eight or 10-hour shift.
- Percentage of load: Another compensation option is for a driver to get a portion of the load’s revenue, such as 20%. Getting paid by revenue can mean that a driver has a few big paydays and some smaller paychecks in between. Choosing the percentage of load payment option makes the most sense when a driver hauls valuable loads.
Sometimes, drivers can negotiate their preferred payment method when they start working with a company. A self-employed owner-operator who works with multiple companies might have different compensation arrangements with each one.
Average Truck Driver Salaries
Truck driver and owner-operator salaries differ across the U.S. Factors that affect a driver’s salary include the type of vehicle they operate, where they are based, and whether they are a company driver or owner-operator.
How Much Do Semi-Truck Drivers Make?
The median annual salary of semi or heavy truck drivers in 2021 was $49,100, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Truck drivers in the construction, trade, and manufacturing industries had a slightly lower median annual salary, ranging from $47,460 to $48,060. Drivers in the top 10% of earners had yearly salaries over $72,730, while drivers in the bottom 10% had annual wages under $30,710.
Salaries of heavy truck drivers vary considerably based on location. According to the BLS, truck drivers in the following states have the highest earnings:
- Washington: Average annual salary of $57,190.
- D.C.: Average annual salary of $56,530.
- Alaska: Average annual salary of $56,440.
- New Jersey: Average annual salary of $56,340.
- New York: Average annual salary of $55,390.
Drivers who are based in certain metropolitan areas tend to earn significantly more than their peers in more remote areas. For example, the average annual salary for a driver in the San Francisco metropolitan is $62,290.
The states that employ the most truck drivers aren’t necessarily the states with the highest wages. The following states have the most drivers:
How Much Do Owner-Operators Make?
Often, owner-operators, particularly those driving for a while, have more experience than company drivers. They might also have more endorsements, which allow them to command a higher per-mile rate.
Owner-operators are also more likely to get paid a percentage of the revenue they haul. Getting paid part of the revenue can considerably increase a driver’s earnings, especially if they regularly drive short distances and transport valuable goods.
Drivers who own or lease their vehicle might have higher earning potentials than drivers who don’t, but they generally have more expenses than company drivers. The expenses can make earnings equivalent between company drivers and owner-operators.
For example, an owner-operator needs to take care of their vehicle. They have to make truck payments if they don’t own the truck outright. They also have to pay insurance and any maintenance on the vehicle, plus fuel costs.
Owner-operators also have to pay more taxes than company drivers. They have to pay income tax, plus both the employer and employee’s portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes.
How Much Do Delivery and Light Truck Drivers Make?
Delivery and light truck drivers typically work for a company that contracts with other businesses.
Typically, delivery truck drivers earn less than semi-truck drivers. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for light truck drivers was $38,280 in May 2021. There’s a lot of variation in what drivers earn based on their industry.
Couriers tend to have the highest median salaries — $47,670 annually. Drivers who work in the wholesale or retail industry earn slightly less, with a median salary of $37,390 for wholesale drivers and $29,520 for retail drivers.
There are also some differences in salary based on location. Light truck drivers in the following states have the highest average annual wages, according to the BLS:
- Alaska: Average annual salary of $48,340.
- New Jersey: Average annual salary of $47,590.
- D.C.: Average annual salary of $46,840.
- California: Average annual salary of $46,350.
- Illinois: Average annual salary of $46,320.
Light truck drivers who work in busy metropolitan areas typically have higher salaries than drivers in less busy areas or areas with lower living costs. Drivers in San Jose and San Francisco earn an average of $51,860 and $51,560 per year.
Similarly to heavy truck drivers, the states that employ the most light truck drivers don’t necessarily have the highest wages. The five states with the highest levels of light truck driver employment are:
- New York
What Benefits Do Truckers Get?
Truck drivers who work for companies might get benefits from their employers. Common benefits can include:
- Health, dental, and vision insurance
- Retirement plans
- Paid or holiday time off
- Life insurance
Some companies also offer extra perks to make a career as a truck driver more appealing. For example, a company might have a “no-touch” option, which means the driver doesn’t have to load or unload freight. When working with a company, a driver might get discounts on their truck insurance. Some companies also offer safe driving bonuses after a certain number of years without an accident.
Since there is a driver shortage, many companies are going above and beyond to make working as a driver appealing. Along with health and retirement benefits, a company might offer a sign-on or new driver bonus.
Benefits work a bit differently for owner-operators. Since they are independent, they are in charge of their benefits. An owner-operator needs to get their own health insurance and will have to start their own retirement plan. Since they usually charge more than company drivers, owner-operators should consider the cost of insurance and retirement when deciding how much to charge.
What Expenses Do Truck Drivers Have?
Owner-operators have several expenses to consider. A notable expense for truck drivers is the cost of fuel. Fuel can be a significant expense when diesel prices are higher than usual.
In addition to fuel costs, owner-operators need to pay to keep their trucks in working order. Trucks need to pass a safety inspection before going on the road. If a truck doesn’t pass inspection, the driver must pay for repairs or a tune-up to get the vehicle in drivable condition.
Insurance is another expense to consider. The cost of insurance varies. If you are leasing a truck, you might pay less for insurance than someone who owns their truck.
There are numerous other expenses to track as a truck driver, too, from the cost of food on the road to the cost of working with professionals such as accountants or lawyers.
While expenses can be high, it’s possible to deduct many of them from the income you earn. Deducting relevant expenses reduces your taxable income, meaning you pay less in taxes.
Is Truck Driving Worth It?
For many drivers, the answer is yes. Becoming a truck driver gives you a chance to explore the country while earning a living. If you are an owner-operator, you have more freedom than someone who works for a company. If you decide to work with a trucking company, you enjoy a stable career and salary, often with benefits.
You can also decide to start your own trucking company if you enjoy the trucker’s life and everything that comes with it.
Work With Apex Capital
If you’re ready to start your own trucking authority, Apex Capital can help you. Our Apex Startup Program customizes a plan to help you form a carrier company and start hauling. We also offer the Apex Fuel Card Program for large and small trucking companies to help you save an average of $0.45 per gallon on diesel. Contact us today to create your own trucking company or apply for our fuel card.