Feb. 19–The trucking industry has struggled with a chronic shortage of drivers for 15 years, and the unmet demand for drivers is expected increase in the next decade.
In 2005, trucking firms in the United States were unable to fill slots for 20,000 drivers before the issue briefly disappeared in the Great Recession. But the shortage of drivers resurfaced as a constant worry for trucking firms as more freight was shipped on highways during the recovery.
With the national unemployment rate below 5 percent, many trucking firms including Northern Refrigerated Transportation of Turlock have positions to fill.
“The whole time I have worked with Northern Refrigerated as a training supervisor we have not stopped hiring,” said Bill Wall, supervisor of driver training for the Turlock firm.
One barrier for prospective new drivers is the $5,000 to $6,000 cost of truck driving school, which prepares them to obtain a Class A license. Northern Refrigerated has teamed up with Stanislaus County’s Department of Workforce Development in a recruitment and training effort that’s sweetened with U.S. Department of Labor funding.
The federal funds are available to pay for the typical six weeks of truck driving training for eligible applicants.
The recruitment effort will help Northern Refrigerated find qualified drivers and trainees, but the county agency will open the program to other companies in a few weeks, a staff member said.
Martha Sanchez, program director for county workforce development, said the funding aims to assist the unemployed and people who were recently laid off or are not earning enough to make ends meet and need to upgrade their skills. To be eligible, individuals must have a right to work in the U.S. and men must be registered with the Selective Service.
Northern Refrigerated approached the county about the recruitment effort. Western Pacific Truck School and Green Valley Truck School, both of Modesto, are participating.
“Northern Refrigerated is a business in our county that is needing to fill employment vacancies,” Sanchez said. “We are planning to talk to other companies and offer the assistance to them as well.”
According to an analysis by American Trucking Associations, the industry had a highest-ever shortfall of 50,700 drivers nationwide last year. That was up from 36,500 in 2016 and it is forecast to rise to 63,000 this year.
The association said the shortage is most acute in the interstate long-haul sector in which drivers are away from home for weeks at a time. Annual turnover in that sector has ranged from 80 to 93 percent since 2012, the study found.
Economic growth pushes the demand for drivers and most of the turnover occurs as drivers accept jobs with other trucking firms that offer bonuses, higher salaries or better routes.
The average age of long-haul interstate drivers is almost 50, creating the need for attracting younger adults to truck driving careers to replace retiring drivers. The report published in October estimated the trucking industry will need to add almost 900,000 new drivers in the next decade or about 90,000 a year.
The use of electronic driver logs for regulatory compliance, and construction to rebuild disaster-torn cities, will further push the demand for drivers this year, the study predicted.
While trucking firms were among the few employers that hired during the recession, job seekers now have more choices in construction and other occupations that don’t involve the on-the-road lifestyle.
Without a solution to the shortage, the potential impact for the nation and economy are shipping delays and interruptions in the “supply chain” or the delivery of supplies to manufacturers.
“The younger people are not focused on driving trucks,” said Jeffrey Smith, manager of driver training and safety for Northern Refrigerated. The company said it has an immediate need for 15 drivers and could hire up to 50 drivers this year.
Northern has tractor-trailers hauling refrigerated products to supermarkets and big box stores in six western states, so its drivers are not traveling such long distances, and that helps reduce turnover. Drivers on regional lines are on the road for up to four to five days, but are home every week, Smith said, one reason driver turnover was 32 percent last year. The company’s most senior driver has been with Northern for 37 years.
Smith said the public is not that aware of compensation in the trucking industry. Northern’s average salaries are in the mid-$50,000s and top out at $80,000 a year. The business offers opportunities for advancement for its 350 employees. Incentives for drivers include a vacation trip to Hawaii for those achieving safety goals over a three-year period.
David Fuentes, 34, of Merced said he skipped between jobs as a cook, roofing worker and construction laborer before getting a Class A license and going to work for Northern six years ago. Today, he and his wife are living the dream with a home, two children and nice vehicles, he said.
“I am raising a family on it and live pretty well,” said Fuentes, who is now a driver compliance lead for Northern. “Boys like to play with big trucks. It’s fun getting out there and running with the equipment.”
Those interested in the Class A license training program are initially expected to meet Northern’s requirements for new drivers. They must be 25 years or older and have no more than two moving violations in the past three years.
Wall said, however, that applicants not meeting the company’s qualifications during the recruitment drive will be referred to other companies.
Under federal law, interstate truck drivers must be 21 years or older; adults 18 years and older can obtain a commercial license for driving in California.
Even trucking firms serving customers within the state’s boundaries are constantly recruiting drivers. Tim Marling, logistics manager for Panella Trucking of Stockton, said it hires 400 drivers for its May-to-November season each year and 30 percent of them are new hires.
The company, which hauls agricultural products in the Central Valley, tacks red-and-white signs on poles, inviting Class A drivers to call a phone number. In addition, a recruiter is working on a database of available drivers for Panella.
“It is very difficult,” Marling said, noting driver shortages put pressure on companies to hire people with less experience. “It’s hard to put a person in an 80,0000-pound vehicle without knowing they have the experience to react or handle a truck.”
Marling expressed the opinion that using federal funds to pay for driving school is a wiser use of public funds than giving cash to the homeless. The tuition assistance will lead to a living wage for new drivers.
Smith said he likes to see motivation and self-discipline in new hires, along with the skills of handling a tractor and 53-foot trailer in all traffic conditions. “We need people who think fast,” he said. “They have to react right away just to stay safe.”
He also looks for some loyalty on an applicant’s work experience. Smith said he once turned down a driver who had worked 26 different jobs in 5 1/2 years.
Smith likes that Patterson Unified School District has launched high school and adult education programs in truck driver training.
Sanchez said she couldn’t say how much federal funding is available for truck driver training in Stanislaus County.
She said the county agency welcomes women to explore non-traditional vocational opportunities — about 6 percent of truck drivers nationwide are female. The training and recruitment for drivers is not closed to adults with a criminal record. The participating employers will make their own hiring decisions with regard to applicants with prior convictions.
Those interested in work as a truck driver or commercial truck driving training may call Bill Wall of Northern Refrigerated Transportation at (209) 664-3800, extension 2054. Companies wishing to be part of the larger recruitment effort may call the Stanislaus County Department of Workforce Development at 209-558-9675.
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