Shorter Hauls

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As fast as Dave Priester can train them, graduates from his commercial driver's license program have locked up jobs in the trucking industry.

"I certainly have more employers than students," said the CDL instructor for the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology. "I've had companies take anybody we could train."

Despite demand, wages have stagnated, and turnover in the industry is running more than 100 percent, according to a recent survey by the American Trucking Association, done with the consulting firm Global Insight. Potential drivers have migrated to construction jobs, where the pay has been better and they don't have to be constantly away from home.

"That's always been the crux of the problem of the long-haul industry," Priester said.

Once a headache mostly for large national truckload companies, the problem now hampers the small trucking companies that make up most of the industry's employers.

Driver turnover rates exceeded 100 percent for both large and small truckload carriers in the third quarter of 2006, according to the survey. Small-truckload firms, whose annual revenues are less than $30 million, reported 100 percent turnover rates for the past four quarters. That was the first time that had happened since the American Trucking Association began tracking the data in 1995.

"We struggle with it all the time," said Randy Davidson, president of Davidson Brothers Trucking in Bellefonte. "It's a challenge every day keeping truck drivers."

He has about 75 drivers, including 25 owner/operators who haul dry bulk goods in the mid-Atlantic region.

"We see more turnover now than we ever have," he said, adding that turnover is as high as 50 percent, even when his drivers are home most nights.

As the industry struggles with the shortage, talking about higher pay and attracting immigrant drivers, trucking officials say it is everyone's problem. Trucking moves more than 70 percent of the freight in this country, making it an essential link between the consumers and the things they want and need. At some point, the shortage will mean delivery delays and higher prices for consumers.

"The economy basically hauls everything by truck," Priester said.

But it doesn't make finding drivers any easier.

ATA Chief Executive Bill Graves said the difficulty finding drivers has become the chief concern of trucking companies, even ahead of the cost of fuel.

"Issues like fuel prices come and go, but the driver shortage has sort of become a constant drumbeat," Graves said. "Fleet operators listed the driver shortage as their number one concern."

Current estimates are that the United States is shy 20,000 long-haul drivers, despite having 3.2 million truck drivers nationwide in 2004. The ATA study projected that the shortage of drivers could rise to 111,000 by 2014.

The causes of the shortage are numerous. Drivers' pay has not kept pace with other industries in which working conditions are better. With lots of little companies, shipping rates have been very competitive, keeping pay for long-haul drivers stagnant this decade.

"Our costs have increased 50-fold, yet the rates we haul at are still lagging," said Mark Zimmerman, vice president of Zimmerman Truck Lines Inc. near Mifflintown in Juniata County.

He has about 300 drivers who haul goods coast to coast. Costs for fuel, health insurance and wages continue to climb, Zimmerman said.

"It's difficult. There's a lot of liability out there," he said.

The industry measures its wages against construction because people who consider truck driving are often the same ones who take construction jobs.

In the 1990s, pay for long-distance truck drivers in the U.S. consistently was 6 percent to 7 percent higher than that of construction workers, according to the ATA study. But with a flourishing construction industry, that differential disappeared. By 2004, the average weekly pay for long-haul truckers in the U.S. was $725, compared with $736 for construction workers.

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