* 3 million truck drivers nationally
* 60,730 truck drivers in Tennessee in 2008
* 66,290 truck drivers in Tennessee in 2007
* 56,660 truck drivers in Georgia in 2008
* 61,560 truck drivers in Georgia in 2007
Source: American Trucking Association, Tennessee Department of Labor
Tammy and Jimmy Ellis listen closely as the truck driving recruiter espouses the benefits of going full time on the road.
Freedom and good pay come with a trucking job, the instructor said. That's good news for the married couple who are considering folding their flooring business, which was hit hard by the economic slowdown in housing and construction.
"We are doing this as a backup," said Mrs. Ellis, a student at Great Southern Commercial Driving School in Tunnel Hill, Ga. "We are thinking about shutting things down and going on the road."
Truck driving schools in North Georgia and Southeast Tennessee are filling up this month, as more people facing layoffs or hourly cutbacks look for a job that is in demand with a decent starting salary.
Trucking industry officials, however, say the demand for newly minted drivers has fizzled with the recession.
Local trucking companies such as U.S. Xpress have cut back on hiring trucking school graduates. Thousands of trucking companies have been put out of business as diesel costs have fluctuated, freight levels plummeted and competition for jobs stiffened.
Don Hunt, a truck driving instructor at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, said trucking classes there, which hold 25 students, will begin Aug. 31. The school has a waiting list of more than 15 people, he said.
Chattanooga State officials saw a slight dip in driving school enrollment this year -- 157 students completed the class in 2009 versus 174 in 2008. The school was forced to eliminate two instructor positions and didn't have the manpower to hold a weekend training class, he said.
"It is turning back around," Mr. Hunt said. "We are seeing 100 percent job placement."
Bryan Riddle, co-owner of Great Southern Commercial Driving School, said driving classes have ebbed and flowed over the past year. At the beginning of the year, fewer people were interested in trucking, since many companies weren't hiring drivers, he said.
Classes at the private school, which start every week and cost nearly $4,000, enroll between five and 10 students, he said.
"Trucking companies are laying off and not hiring," Mr. Riddle said. "And a lot of people can't afford (trucking school)."
In 2005, the American Trucking Association reported there was a shortage of more than 20,000 drivers and, as drivers retired, the shortage would grow to 111,000 by 2014. But the economic recession changed that outlook.
"With the recession sending tonnage figures down more than 20 percent since the beginning of 2008, the driver shortage appears to have vanished," according to the ATA Web site.
Last year, 3,065 trucking companies went bankrupt. Surviving companies have laid off drivers and parked tractors, said Greg Thompson, a spokesman for Chattanooga-based U.S. Xpress.
Jobs in the industry, which start around $37,000 a year, now are highly competitive and more likely to go to experienced truckers with good driving records than new recruits, Mr. Thompson said.
In the second quarter of 2008, U.S. Xpress filled 27 percent of its job openings with trucking school graduates, while the remaining jobs were filled by experienced drivers, he said. In the second quarter of this year, fewer than 1 percent of fleet openings were filled with new drivers, he said.
"For the first time in recent memory, there is an excess of experienced drivers on the market," Mr. Thompson said.