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Trucking industry struggles with driver shortage

West Michigan training school gets more inquiries from local companies.

February 7, 2014
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The trucking industry is facing a shortage of 30,000 drivers now, and another 330,000 will be needed by 2020. Courtesy Thinkstock

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) In recent years, the truck-driving industry has been hit hard with a driver shortage, and industry veterans say the shortage likely will begin to have a serious negative ripple effect on industries across the country if the trend continues.

Recent numbers have estimated the trucking industry is experiencing a shortfall of 30,000 drivers, with projections estimating the need for truck drivers will increase by 330,000 more jobs by 2020. Currently, the U.S. Bureau of Labor puts the number of tractor-trailer and heavy-truck drivers at 1.6 million.

Several factors have been credited with causing the driver shortage: retirements; desire to be home with family; lower wages than competing industries; changes in technology; federal regulation changes; company policies regarding years of experience, criminal record, etc.; and negative stereotypes that have proven hard to overcome.

Dale Arnold, recruiting and retention manager for NTBTRK, a regional trucking company that covers eight states, said there has been a shortage of quality drivers for several years, but he’s noticed it’s become even harder during the past year to fill open positions.

Arnold thinks the aging baby boomer generation is a big reason the industry is seeing the shortage. Couple that, he said, with a lack of successful marketing to younger generations and you have a plethora of unfilled jobs.

“You’ve got people in it today that are getting out of the industry that have been in it for 25 years or so, and the numbers just aren’t filling it back up,” Arnold said.

West Michigan CDL is a local truck-driving school in Grandville, and owner Mike Birdsall said although his school has seen decent enrollment numbers the last four or five years, there is no doubt that when the economy hit the skids in 2008, enrollment dropped, as well.

“We are hoping the enrollment is going to increase here in 2014,” Birdsall said.

He agreed there aren’t as many people interested in joining the industry as there once was. Many people point to pay as the main reason that the industry cannot entice the younger generation into truck driving, but Arnold and Birdsall are skeptical.

Birdsall said it’s subjective since someone who was laid off from factory work where they were making $10 an hour could see their pay increase to between $37,000 and $40,000 with full benefits. “So for some people to get into it, it’s a definite pay increase,” he said.

The potential for long-term career earnings is good too, according to Arnold, who said drivers who stick with it could eventually make between $60,000 and $80,000 per year.

Arnold is quick to point out he has little faith that throwing money at the problem is all it will take to turn the shortage around. He thinks the issues are deeper than the money.

“It’s all about care,” he said. “You can give them all the money in the world but if you treat them like crap, they are going to leave you,” he said. He added that companies need to be honest with new drivers about what they should expect in terms of days away from home.

Birdsall said a shifting culture that has made spending time with family more important strikes close to the heart of the driver shortage.

“To ask someone to be away from home for a week or two — or sometimes more — at a time, living in a truck, basically, as an over-the-road or regional driver, to make $750 or $800 a week, it’s tough for some people with kids and family,” he said. “The time at home is more valuable than the $100 to $200 they might make being in a job where they are (working) in a factory and home every night.”

The payoff needs to be more for someone to be willing to spend two or three weeks on the road, he said.

“We’ve talked about that here and we think that, until the pay does go up to entice people to want to do this and be willing to do it on a regular basis, there is going to continue to be a little bit of a shortage,” he said.

Arnold said one thing NTBTRK does to entice drivers is to guarantee time off. “Our drivers are guaranteed home every five days, 48 hours off,” he said. “That helps, it really does.”

Birdsall said he has seen more companies experiment with modifying on-the-road time.

“There are a couple of companies that do some sharing of the same truck,” he explained. “Maybe you are out for seven days and you take seven days off, but the carrier is still getting truck utilization because while you are out for seven days, the other person is off.

“Carriers have tried zone runs. … If you can drive 10 hours in a day, you might run a load out to a point that is approximately five hours from your home terminal. … They are trying to still get freight hauled but get the driver home on a daily basis, in most cases.”

He said logistically there are many challenges that need to be ironed out.

New federal safety regulations that went into effect in 2013 and limit the number of hours a driver can be on duty are negatively impacting compensation for some drivers who are paid by the mile. Drivers may experience several hours of downtime for which they are not being compensated and that can create a desire to leave the industry.

While it’s easy to point out what might be causing the driver shortage, finding solutions seems to be trickier.

Despite saying it’s not about the money, Arnold noted many companies, including his own, provide incentives and bonus pay in an effort to increase retention of drivers. He said tuition reimbursement and safety bonuses are common.

Birdsall said signing bonuses also are common and are based on a driver’s experience.

“(For) students right now with zero experience, we have a couple of carriers — one is offering a $2,500 sign-on bonus and another is offering $3,000,” he said.

He also noted there is funding available for new drivers to help pay for truck-driving programs, including through Michigan Works!

Birdsall said trucking companies are starting to decrease their hiring requirements.

“We’ve been getting more and more calls this past year from carriers that, in the past, we may have never heard of or never worked with because they didn’t hire student drivers or didn’t have a need to hire student drivers,” he said. “But because they are having a problem finding qualified or enough drivers, they’ve had to look to hiring students.”

He said common industry policies might need some tweaking in order to put some who are interested in becoming a driver to work once they are trained.

“We talk to a lot of people who are willing to do it, but then we’re not able to enroll them in the program because when they get done, it’s going to be really tough to find them a job based on … their employment history, their driving record, criminal record, or a combination of all of them.”

Another solution gaining some traction is intermodal transportation — using more than one mode of transport, which very well could be the model of the future if the truck driver shortage continues.

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