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Trucking News

Drive to Succeed
By Jonathan Nelson, The Columbian

Each day that trucks leave the Vancouver yard of the Mitchell Bros. trucking company, the business loses money because 5.3 percent of its fleet sits idle.

The reason not enough drivers.

Not that Mitchell Bros. isn't trying to change the situation. Each month the company loses five to seven drivers and hires the same number, said Dave Bramen, operations manager for the trucking firm.

"Getting ahead is the problem," Bramen said. "There are lots of opportunities to make money, but with trucks sitting there we don't have that option."

Mitchell Bros isn't alone. Trucking companies throughout the region and across the nation are dealing with a driver shortage that is reaching epidemic proportions, according to experts.

"If we had 100,000 drivers check in for work today they'd be driving by lunchtime," said Mike Russell, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, the country's largest trade organization.

The shortage poses a significant threat to a national economy that is starting to gain traction. Trucks carried more than three-quarters of the goods that traveled across the country in 2003. Revenues from trucking companies between 1998 and 2003 grew from $142.2 billion to $161 billion.

To meet future demands, the industry needs to retain 3.2 million drivers and add another 60,000 by 2010, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But companies such as Mitchell Bros., which has approximately 142 trucks on the road during any given day, are churning through drivers at astronomical numbers. The turnover rate for the third quarter of 2003 was 112 percent, a five percent increase from the previous year, according to the trade publication Transport Topics.

So, why the shortage?

Those in the industry list several reasons, including:

* Changing guard. The trucking population is in a state of flux as older drivers near retirement age or have already quit. That leaves a void that companies can't fill fast enough.

* Regulation. A new law imposed in January changed how drivers calculate their work hours. They gained an extra hour of drive time, but are required to take longer breaks from behind the wheel. That created a greater need for drivers.

Also, drivers need to be at least 21 years old to get a commercial drivers license that allows them to drive between states.

David Riggins, who owns the nationally accredited IITR Truck Driving School in Clackamas, Ore., said in many cases prospective drivers have already chosen a career path in that period between high school graduation and their 21st birthday.

* Pay. The weak economy and lowered volumes of product being shipped have kept driver wages depressed. The average annual pay is about $31,200, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is slightly below most blue-collar jobs and the $37,440 average annual pay all workers receive.
With pay being equal, potential drivers will often pick another job because of lifestyle choices, such as being able to go home after a day of work.

* Lifestyle. The life of a trucker, particularly long-haul drivers, is both a draw and deterrent. The solitary nature and freedom of the job is often a lure, yet as drivers get older and establish families, the long hours away from home often become too much of a sacrifice. The transient nature of the business also lets drivers drop in and out of the industry almost at will.

Despite the need for drivers, Riggins has seen little increase in the number of people getting trained to drive big rigs. The school had 502 students this year, only three more than last year.

The four-week program takes an unskilled driver and makes them ready for an entry-level job that most likely pays $30,000 a year plus benefits.

Companies are so desperate to hire drivers that as many as five recruiters will visit the school and try to woo students with free lunch, Riggins said. More companies would come if allowed, he said.

Russell and Riggins said the industry is responding in other ways to lure people into the profession. Trucks are better equipped with power steering and brakes and automatic transmissions.

The sleeping quarters include such amenities as televisions, VCRs, refrigerators and microwaves. More truck stops are offering wireless Internet access.

Russell said companies are increasingly trying to entice drivers with guarantees of shorter trips, more time at home and no routes to the East Coast where traffic congestion is legendary.

Wages head higher

Schneider National Inc., one of the largest national trucking companies, announced Dec. 15 it was boosting wages and providing drivers and owner-operators more personal time. The average annual increase will be $4,000.

Bramen said other companies will need to match that salary jump to remain competitive.

Duff Swain, president of the Trincon Group in Columbus, Ohio, wrote a paper in May that outlined what he sees as fundamental shifts the trucking industry needs to take in order to reverse the driver trend.

Trincon, which tracks the industry, created a driver profile based on years of surveys that found the average driver is male, in his late 30s with a high school education. He got into the business because he likes the money, feeling of independence, lifestyle and opportunities. He is independent, nonconfrontational and defensive.

Swain argues this does not define a stable employee and explains why fleet drivers quit when attempts are made to change their work habits.

The industry needs to make drivers more career-oriented, according to Swain. That means companies should recruit educated, security- and career-minded people and develop clearly defined career paths for these workers.

Along with improved training and pay for drivers, Swain said the industry needs to junk its "one truck, one driver" philosophy. He said trucks are built to run almost continuously and staffing strategies should be developed to match that usage.

Russell sees the existing driver shortage continuing until pay raises and enough of the lifestyle issues are mitigated to make driving a truck more attractive.

"We're going to have to be innovative to keep drivers in the business and come into the business," he said.

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