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March 28, 2018 11:15 AM, EDT
MATS Draws Drivers and Recruiters in Hot Freight Market
John Sommers II for Transport Topics

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Vendors selling everything a truck driver could want filled the West Wing of the Mid-America Trucking Show like an industrial-grade flea market. Alongside them, fleet recruiters angled from their booths to chat with drivers who strolled the crowded aisles.

The latest survey on industry issues by the American Transportation Research Institute found that driver shortage was the top-ranked issue in 2017 for the first time since 2006. The industry faced a shortage of 50,000 drivers at the end of 2017, according to American Trucking Associations.

That need remains elevated.

Drivers are looking for home time, a stable carrier with a great family atmosphere and empathetic back office support. They also want plenty of freight to haul and competitive pay, said Gretchen Jackson, senior manager for driver recruiting at CFI.

“Drivers are out over-the-road, doing their thing all by themselves in the cab of their truck, just moving along. They think, think, think and process,” Jackson told Transport Topics.

CFI has gone through several ownership changes, and attended MATS to show drivers it remains a trusted brand after starting out decades ago as Contract Freighters Inc., she said. Montreal-based TFI acquired the truckload business from Con-way in 2016 and renamed it CFI in recognition of the company’s heritage.

TFI ranks No. 10 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of largest for-hire carriers in North America.

Jackson, who has spent 20 of her 27 years at CFI as a recruiter, has mixed emotions about letting 18 — 21 year olds drive in interstate trucking. If enacted, a bill introduced in Congress March 21 would allow it.

“I have an 18-year-old son, and I am not sure he is prepared to do the job. But there are a ton of 18-year-olds that are prepared. They have lived the farm life. They have worked hard, and probably are driving 18-wheelers. So I am kind of on the fence with it,” she said.

Around a corner in another booth was Natasha Hammack, senior account executive at HireMaster. She was recruiting trucking companies.

“The current situation is one of the most promising markets [for driver hiring] we have seen in a while,” said Hammack.

“It feels like the [earlier] desperation is kind of gone away. People are figuring out the best ways to recruit drivers, realizing we are going to have to change the culture, and make it more of a profession and recognize the importance of the driver,” she said.

HireMaster has multiple digital marketing efforts — including social media, mobile apps, push marketing and websites, among others — that help fleets find leads that result in hires, she said.

“Leads are great, but they need hires,” Hammack said.

HireMaster is a unit of Wright Media.

Koch Cos. Inc. seeks drivers with at least one year of experience for its diversified operation.“I don’t know too many companies that [require] more than a year,” said Tim Haala, the recruiting supervisor for Koch, which operates about 800 company-owned trucks alongside 100 lease-purchase drivers and owner-operators.

The Golden Valley, Minn.-based carrier ranks No. 85 on the Transport Topics list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.

The driver pool includes people coming out of the military looking for a job, people getting back into driving after a hiatus, and people who have done it forever, Haala said.

“Overall, you get a lot of drivers who are just coming here [at MATS] to check things out. As much as you try to talk to them about a different job, they are here to enjoy themselves and they don’t want to talk about work,” he said.

“We just have to figure out how to transfer the next generation into it. It isn’t easy,” he said. “But if we can create more dedicated or local jobs, you know… [then maybe].”

Also in the West Wing looking for drivers was digital freight broker Convoy, making its first visit to MATS.

“We have been signing up carriers steadily,” said Kristen Forecki, the company’s vice president of operations.

The feature on the company’s app that most appealed to the drivers, Forecki said, was its automated detention feature. When a driver taps the app after the first two hours of waiting, Convoy will automatically start the clock on detention time and pay drivers $40 an hour while they wait.