published Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Recession-racked workers hit the road, but truck driver shortage could worsen with improved economy

Troy Hall, right, and Mindi Doyle trained at U.S. Xpress and plan to drive as a team.
Troy Hall, right, and Mindi Doyle trained at U.S. Xpress and plan to drive as a team.
Photo by John Rawlston.
  • photo
    Finishing examiner Johnny Cannon talks with driver trainee Larry Miller as he backs up a truck at the U.S. Xpress facility in North Georgia.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
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By the numbers

$37,770 — Median pay for tractor-trailer truck drivers in 2010

1.6 millionNumber of truck- driving jobs in 2010

330,100 — Number of truck- driving jobs to be added 2010-20

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Troy Hall earned more than $100,000 a year as a construction supervisor before the recession five years ago halted most commercial building projects and forced the 48-year-old builder to find a new career.

With his fiancee — former real estate mortgage broker Mindi Doyle — Hall is hitting the road driving an 18-wheel truck.

"I wanted a more stable career without so many ups and downs," Hall explained recently while completing his training at the U.S. Xpress Enterprises' Tunnel Hill, Ga., truck terminal. "I've actually always thought about being a truck driver since I was a boy, and I think we've got a plan to make this work. At this point in my life, I look at it as an adventure."

It's an adventure that U.S. Xpress Enterprises in Chattanooga and other trucking companies hope more displaced workers are willing to make to meet a growing shortage of truck drivers in America. The Chattanooga-based trucking company hires more than 7,000 new drivers a year.

Hall and Doyce are part of a new breed of recession-racked road warriors who are being lured into driving by the prospects of a more steady paycheck. Although Hall won't match his pre-recession income, he and his fiancee expect to make a comfortable living and spend the next decade saving money for retirement.

The average truck driver earns nearly $38,000 a year, and long-haul drivers are paid even more, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Long-haul driver teams who work enough jobs can easily earn more than $100,000 a year, Hall said.

But in spite of stubbornly high unemployment levels over the past four years, the trucking industry is still having trouble getting enough qualified drivers, especially for long-haul routes that require drivers to be away from home for many days a year.

The American Trucking Association estimates the immediate shortage of drivers is at least 20,000 drivers and could be as high as 30,000 today.

"If we continue to see growth in freight volumes, we can expect that number to rise in the near future, exacerbating the qualitative shortage and creating a quantitative one," said Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Association.

Driving the industry

The Labor Department projects truck driver jobs are growing 50 percent faster than the economy as a whole. From 2010 to 2020, the government projects that truck driving jobs will grow by 21 percent, or 330,100 jobs.

Chattanooga State Community College is moving to meet that demand by increasing enrollment at its truck driving program. The school expects to graduate up to 190 truck drivers this year from its commercial truck driving school, up from 158 last year.

"We've always had our classes full, and our placement rate is 100 percent," said Don Hunt, the program's director.

The 216-hour program, which students complete in seven weeks, costs $1,077. Tennessee residents can offset about two-thirds of that cost with a Wilder-Naifeh technical skills grant.

But in other schools, higher costs for truck driving training, combined with state cutbacks for the schools that sponsor such programs, have cut the number of truck driving graduates.

A study by the National Association of Publicly Funded Truck Driving Schools of 110 programs across the country found that enrollment dropped 22 percent from 18,000 students in 2005 to about 14,000 this year.

"Since the recession, many public schools have experienced budget cuts and changes in programs," said Martin Garsee, a program director at Houston Community College in Texas and president of the association. "A lack of funding means there are fewer schools offering truck driving training and not as many instructors as before the recession."

Long trips away from home contribute to the high turnover. But Garsee said the wireless connections are helping drivers stay connected with their families.

"Computers with Skype allow drivers to sit there and talk with their families," he said. "There is all this wonderful technology out there that I think we [can] attract more people if we can get the word out."

To entice entrepreneurs into the industry, U.S. Xpress is pioneering a new 90-day trial of its lease-to-purchase program to truckers who want to drive their own truck.

Fuller also said the company is working to shorten the times truckers have to be away from home.

"We try to do what we can to get drivers home more often," he said.

Filling the need

Even with above-average wage levels for truck drivers, a majority of the new long-haul drivers quit or join another carrier in their first year.

The American Trucking Association reported last month that the annualized turnover rate for linehaul truck fleets rose this year to more than 100 percent, meaning that the typical driver doesn't even stay with the job for an entire year. The turnover rate is at its highest level since 2008.

"We've got to bring new drivers into our industry," said Eric Fuller, chief operating officer U.S. Xpress, which hosted the nation's top public truck driving schools earlier this month. "It's not the most attractive job for many young people."

Turnover declined during the recession. But Fuller said as other jobs come back, especially those in construction, driver turnover increases.

U.S. Xpress hires about half of its drivers coming out of truck driver schools and the rest from those who have worked at other truck driving jobs.

"Three or four years ago during the recession, we were hiring only experienced drivers," Fuller said. "We've really been forced to go after students, to create our own training program and to get aggressive about bringing new drivers into our industry. Unfortunately, we think it's going to get worse for us as the economy gets better."

The company has about 500 drivers who help train new U.S. Xpress drivers through a 120-hour program on the road.

During the recession when shipments plunged and truck driver turnover dipped, U.S. Xpress shut down its own driver training program for a couple of years and hired only experienced drivers, when they needed them.

But today, the market is far different and U.S. Xpress is actively recruiting graduates of truck driver schools as well as drivers from other companies.

"Once you get your CDL [Commercial Driving License], you can work anywhere," said Latasha Neal, vice president of recruiting at U.S. Xpress. "We want drivers to stay, and we're doing what we can to both recruit new drivers and keep our good drivers."

Larry Miller, who completed his training at U.S. Xpress this month after completing a two-month training program this summer at the Roadmaster truck driving school in Atlanta, is one such driver. After losing his job at an oil refinery in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, Miller decided to follow in the path of his father in the trucking industry — only in the Southeast United States.

"It's a great way to explore the country, and you can make good money," he said. "I wanted to see all of the United States, and that's why I came here."

about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

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