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Trucking Shortage: Drivers Aren't Always In It For The Long Haul

Wayne Berry is training to be a truck driver. The shortage of drivers is so severe that on his second day of training, he already had a job offer.
Frank Morris
Wayne Berry is training to be a truck driver. The shortage of drivers is so severe that on his second day of training, he already had a job offer.

Almost all of the goods we buy spend time in a truck before they get to us. And because store shelves are full and sales are strong, you might assume that the trucking industry is doing great.

But trucking companies say they are critically short of drivers — and many truckers say it's pay the companies are short of.

One of the fast-growing parts of the trucking industry these days is driver training.

Schools, like APEX CDL Institute in Kansas City, Kan., are cranking out drivers.

"I retired from the Army in 2013," says trainee Wayne Berry. "I've worked four jobs since then, and nothing's really captured my interest as much as this has."

On his second day training behind the wheel of a big rig, Berry says an Army buddy told him about trucking.

"And then I got in touch with them, and they were like, 'Yeah, we'll take you.' So I have a pre-hire letter from this company," Berry says.

He says the company committed to hire him before he knew how to drive a truck.

"Anybody will hire him," Jeff Steinberg, who runs the APEX CDL school, says.

"I would have recruiters get in knife fights for him out in the parking lot to try to get him to come to work for them," Steinberg says.

The American Trucking Associations says the industry is down 48,000 drivers.

Noel Perry, a trucking industry analyst, says the number is much higher.

"My driver shortage number right now is at 100,000. But it's a relative number," Perry says.

For one thing, more than 3 million long-haul truckers work American highways. Perry says the current driver shortage isn't big enough to disrupt shipping all that much — but it is dampening growth, and companies are responding.

"In the last couple of weeks, we've announced two of the largest pay raises in our company's history," Derek Leathers, president of Werner Enterprises, says.

Werner Enterprises, one of the biggest trucking companies, says it has boosted pay by $5,000 a year for some drivers, $10,000 for others.

"We want 2016 to be the year of the driver for us," Leathers says.

It's not just pay increases and signing bonuses. Trucking companies say they're working to get drivers home more regularly, and to cut aggravation on the job.

But Todd Spencer, with the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, says trucking companies have a long way to go.

"Companies go through drivers like oats through a horse. I mean, drivers are considered very much a disposable commodity," Spencer says.

Just look at the turnover rate, he says. It can vary wildly by company but averages a whopping 100 percent.

Drivers fill up at the Petro truck stop in Oak Grove, Mo. Because most drivers are paid by the mile, delays at stops eat directly into their earnings.
Frank Morris / KCUR
Drivers fill up at the Petro truck stop in Oak Grove, Mo. Because most drivers are paid by the mile, delays at stops eat directly into their earnings.

"One hundred percent turnover means you had two people for every position. You just didn't keep them. That's not a shortage," Spencer says.

Lots of truckers are currently retiring, accounting for some of the turnover.

Bob Costello with the American Trucking Associations argues that the churn is a good thing for drivers, who are following promises of better working conditions or pay, and jumping from job to job.

"If you have a good driving record, you can leave a carrier today and have a job this afternoon," Costello says.

But many new truck drivers don't last their first year — the job's too hard on their families, they make mistakes, and they don't earn as much as expected.

"A shortage? I don't think there's no shortage in truck driving!" Broderick Vinson says, laughing. Filling up at the Petro truck stop in Oak Grove, Mo., he notes that most drivers get paid by the mile, not by the hour. That means that delays — at loading docks, in traffic, whatever — cut straight into their earnings.

Last year, the median annual pay for drivers came in just under $40,000. Long-haul truckers tend to make more, but they are on the road up to 14 hours a day, up to 80 hours a week, sometimes for weeks on end — working, sleeping and eating truck-stop food in a truck.

Veterans such as Gus Wagner say it's a tough lifestyle.

"You ask a question about why there's a driver shortage," Wagner says, "and what it is, there's a pay shortage. Because why do you want to leave your house, leave your family, leave your kids, when you could make as much at a local job? It just doesn't make any sense."

As trucking companies work to re-balance the relationship with drivers, they face new safety regulations in the next couple of years that will likely slow trucks down and cut the number of hours drivers can work — which means trucking companies will need to hire still more of them.

Last week, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration released a long-awaited rule ordering drivers to electronically record their hours behind the wheel.

The move is designed to prevent fatigue, but if current economic trends continue, it could make workers less productive and exacerbate the shortage.

Copyright 2015 KCUR 89.3

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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