(NewsNation) — Behind stocked grocery shelves and menus with fresh ingredients are truck drivers who have adapted amid a global pandemic, worker shortages and climbing gas prices.
The U.S. originally turned to truck drivers to reach parts of the country that trains couldn’t. In 1904, there were just 700 trucks on U.S. roads, but today that number is more than 15 million.
Together, they’re responsible for moving 70% of everything the nation eats, drinks and wears.
Chris Eme is a third-generation trucker. The bumpy roads and clicking of a turn signal are part of what he has come to recognize as a second home. As a kid, he knew when his dad reached back and tapped him without saying a word, that it meant it he was blocking the mirror. Even then, Eme knew he wanted to own his own trucking company.
“You get a front-row seat to seeing America. That is really what it is,” Eme said.
Trucking is an $800 billion industry that has relied on drivers who weathered uncertain times.
“Truck drivers didn’t stop when COVID happened. It takes a lot to get the products on the shelves,” Eme said. “And people don’t understand what truck drivers endured to get those products on the shelf.”
The pandemic brought the nation to a standstill in March 2020, but the demand for goods only grew.
In turn, many truckers persisted. They kept the shelves stocked and the gas stations full, but a record number left the job altogether.
Last year the industry was short a record 80,000 drivers.
“The thing is, trucking just isn’t as sexy as it used to be — for better or for worse,” said Harbor Trucking Association CEO Matt Schrap.
The stakes have gotten higher, and so have operating costs.
“You have to keep the truck running in order to keep the wheels turning in order to keep earning,” Schrap said.
Diesel — $2.87 per gallon in 2010 — now is more than $5 and each tire, $500.
“At my max, I’ll take 200 gallons of fuel,” Eme said. “You do that twice or three times a week, it adds up to a lot of money every year. How much will it cost to fill up? $500 or $600.”
Then there’s the prices of permits, which range from $5-$5,000. The cost of life on the road isn’t cheap, either. A convenience store Snickers bar that cost little more than $1 10 a few years ago now costs $1.59.
“And so there are all these little tiny things that add up on top of themselves that just add to higher costs in general,” Schrap said.
Today, a profession that was once a fixture of pop culture in the 1970s (think “Smokey and the Bandit” or Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down”) has fallen out of the spotlight. But those behind the wheel say they’ll keep going and adapting, as they always have.
“Not even in the smallest percentage do I think people know how important we are,” Eme said. “They see us out here and they see things out on the shelf but I don’t think they put two and two together.”