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March 28, 2016 4:01 PM, EDT
'Without Trucks, Man, We're Doomed'
Firms in Capital Region of New York Struggle to Cope with Driver Shortage
John Sommers II for Transport Topics
Driving a truck is a good way to earn a living, but the living isn’t always good on the road.

The reality of life along the interstate is a leading reason for a growing shortage of longhaul truck drivers, even as trucking firms maintain near-continual recruitment campaigns and offer lucrative incentives to attract and retain drivers.

Starting wages are often more than $1,000 a week, and longhaul drivers with a high school diploma and a few years’ experience can earn $70,000 or more annually.

Weighing against this is the time away from family, the endless roadside meals and the sleeping in the back of the truck.

Kendra Hems, president of New York State Motor Truck Association in Clifton Park, New York, said, “It’s tough. The market is very tight for a number of reasons.”

• Many experienced drivers are nearing retirement age.

• The volume of cargo trucked on American highways is continually increasing.

• By federal regulation, 21 is the minimum age for interstate drivers, and many companies won’t hire anyone younger than 22 or 23, ruling out a large potential labor pool — recent high school graduates who aren’t going to college.

Beyond that, there’s an image problem.

“It’s not necessarily what you would consider a sexy career,” Hems said. To counter this, she said, “One of the things we try to do is educate potential candidates that this isn’t just a job, it’s a career path.”

Truckers, she said, can move up to become a dispatcher or operations manager. Diesel technicians (they’re in short supply, too) can become a floor manager or department manager.

The health problems associated with the truck itself have largely been eliminated by manufacturers, Hems said. “The trucks of old, we had drivers with back problems and kidney problems because the truck was bouncing down the road, but that has changed.”

Now, she said, trucks are built to be as driver-friendly as passenger cars, with heated seats, air suspension, automatic transmissions, back massagers, Bluetooth connectivity, heated windshield, DirecTV, electrical generators … the list goes on.

“In part, that’s one of the things a lot of motor carriers will focus on in trying to recruit,” Hems said.

Problems associated with the trucker lifestyle — inconsistent or insufficient sleep, smoking, obesity, unhealthy diet, sun damage to skin — remain up to the trucker to manage.

Tim Adair, founder, owner and namesake of Timco Transportation in Glenville, New York, started off with one truck in 1991 and now has 23 big white Volvos, up to 20 of which are on the road at once. He says he doesn’t have a lot of turnover among his drivers but when he needs a replacement, it takes three or four months to find the right person.

Is that because he’s selective?

“For my criteria that we look for, yes,” he said. “I have to sleep at night. My name is on the door.”

There’s also a significant sum of money involved: A new truck and trailer combination costs Timco $182,000. Add a year’s worth of fees and surcharges and he’s right around $190,000 for one big rig.

Adair said Timco drivers average $68,000 a year plus a significant benefit package, and his top driver last year made more than $90,000. But they’re working 60 hours per week, so the per-hour earnings are not as much as they might seem.

The labor pool is limited and aging, Adair said, with the average driver in his 40s or 50s. (It’s still a male-dominated field, though female ranks are gradually increasing, Hems says.)

“I guess it’s in line with any trade,” Adair said. “The younger generation just doesn’t want to do it.”

The Timco salary range is similar to what was being advertised this week in the Capital Region of New York by national operations that run thousands of trucks.

Roehl Transport advertised annual earnings of $50,000-plus to start and J.B. Hunt Transport Services an average annual gross of $70,000. Both, ranked Nos. 69 and 3, respectively, on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers, declined comment for this story.

Nussbaum Transportation advertised $66,000 to $70,000 a year, No. 95 A&R Logistics $65,000 a year and No. 18 U.S. Xpress Enterprises $70,000-plus a year.

Some larger firms are even training recruits to drive tractor-trailers, and paying them during training in some cases. No. 23 C.R. England Inc. runs its own trucking school and also works with a network of third-party schools to keep the new drivers coming, and is increasing its marketing efforts to attract experienced drivers, said Ken Munck, director of online marketing, driver recruiting and development. He said the goal for 2016 is to hire more than 1,500 drivers and bring its driver workforce to 6,500 by year’s end. That won’t be easy.

“C.R. England is definitely feeling the impact of the truck driver shortage,” Munck told The Gazette via e-mail. “With continued increases in load demand, a decrease in available truck drivers to meet the demand, and along with ever restricting regulatory changes, C.R. England is constantly in a crunch to find new qualified drivers.”

It should be noted that not all truckers spend days on end driving far from home, and many make a lot less than $70,000 a year, particularly local drivers. For example, as it advertised for $70,000 for longhaul drivers, J.B. Hunt also advertised a local driving position in the Mechanicville area at $49,000 a year.

Hems said the median income for truckers in New York in 2013 was only about $41,000.

A trucker’s pay is affected by several factors, such as whether he gets paid to wait in line to unload his cargo, or only gets paid per mile driven or whether he has to do tasks like tarping the cargo. For that reason, “earnings” is a more accurate term than “salary” or “wages.”

Down the road from Adair, Dimension Fabricators owner Scott Stevens has a fleet of trucks that mostly go out, deliver steel, and come back the same day, so his drivers don’t have to spend nights in a hotel or the back of a truck. Some drivers like the long haul, Stevens said, but many prefer the shorter regional routes that Dimension’s drivers run.

“We’re fortunate,” Stevens said. “These jobs are more desirable than the poor guy who gets in his truck and drives to California over the next four days.”

He doesn’t have much problem finding a new driver when he needs one.

“We think we pay pretty well,” he said: $20 to $25 per hour, plus benefits. “Our jobs are more desirable than some. Companies are having trouble finding drivers.”

Stevens described a complicated labor market within the trucking industry:

• Large sums of money must be paid to longhaul drivers, especially those who work in pairs, driving the truck 20 hours a day instead of 10.

• Despite this, large numbers of longhaul drivers quit each year or jump to another company — by the end of 2014, the annual turnover rate was approaching 100% for companies operating large fleets.

• Shorthaul and local drivers have to hustle if their pay is based on their deliveries.

A food service driver can make a pile of money, Stevens said as an example, provided he gets a good route and can move a lot of heavy boxes of frozen chicken quickly by hand and by cart.

“You’ll never see an overweight UPS guy,” he said. “They’re working hard.”

UPS Inc. ranks No 1 on the for-hire TT100.

Federal regulatory changes — requiring truckers to get off the road after 11 hours of driving in one day, or 14 hours total on duty in one day, or 60 hours per week — have only worsened the driver shortage, but Hems at the trucking association said those rules are designed to fight driving while drowsy, and trucking companies are eager to avoid accidents.

There is, she said, a “distinct change in the ways of old. Safety in a company is an investment.”

There’s also a greater emphasis now on a trucker’s physical fitness to drive, she said, with close examination of sight and hearing, and screening for such potentially dangerous conditions as diabetes and sleep apnea.

Older displaced workers looking for a second career may be more likely to fail one or more of these health screenings, limiting what Hems said is an important source of new drivers.

Adair does all he can to keep up standards, but he operates only 20 of the more than 2 million trucks on the road nationwide. He says the industry as a whole is suffering because of the shortage of drivers, which is a problem because they haul nearly everything we buy, consume and throw away.

“We have to get professionalism back into the industry,” he said. “Without trucks, man, we’re doomed.”