Long-Term Strategies Key, Recruiting Experts Say

Steve Sichterman
Conversion Interactive Agency CEO Steve Sichterman addresses attendees at the Recruitment & Retention Conference in Nashville, Tenn. (Dan Ronan/Transport Topics)

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The more than 600 trucking industry recruiting professionals at the Recruitment and Retention Conference were urged to keep up their recruiting efforts, even as American Trucking Associations Chief Economist Bob Costello told them a mild recession remains likely.

Conversion Interactive Agency hosted the conference.

At a panel discussion on long-term strategies, Roehl Transportation Vice President of Driver Employment Tim Norlin told attendees his Cumberland, Pa.-based carrier considered cutting its recruiting budget early into the pandemic. Leadership, though, vowed to stay the course.

“I was the first to speak up and say, we have the recruiting machine running; we were having a tremendous amount of success through the end of 2019 and into early 2020, and if we stop this, it will be 18 to 24 months before we get it back,” Norlin said. “My boss, Rick Roehl, listened and said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that, we’re going to keep going.’ ”

Tim Norlin, vice president of driver employment at Roehl


Norlin said the carrier made adjustments in its marketing and training program, tactics that proved successful.

“When the boom happened [as COVID measures eased], and everyone was scrambling to add trucks, we were ahead of the curve and we were adding trucks,” he said. “We grew quite substantially this last year. We’re not a huge carrier; we were 1,800 trucks and now we are at 2,100 trucks, so we grew by more than 10% and this is because we did not slow down recruiting.”

It also was pointed out that some carriers dramatically slashed recruiting budgets in early 2020, in some cases by nearly 95%. When freight demand rebounded, those companies ended up losing drivers and eventually ended up spending more long term than had they spent at consistent levels.

“You shouldn’t be cutting back,” Conversion Interactive Agency Vice President Steve Sichterman said. “You heard Bob Costello say for freight, things are going to pick back up and you’re going to have to ramp it back up.”

Costello painted a generally upbeat picture of the economy. He said the latest data shows the economy continuing to show resilience, pointing to employers creating 517,000 jobs in January and the unemployment rate falling to a 53-year low at 3.4%

“Everyone had been expecting a recession, probably already. But I still think the most likely path for our economy is a likely recession, but we keep kicking the can down the road,” Costello said. “I do think it’s a second-half event. But any recession will be short and not too deep.”

Costello gave a promising outlook for trucking this year as the economy returns to a balance in spending between goods and services.

“Here’s the thing about trucking: I don’t think a recession matters for trucking too much,” he said. “We are in a very different cycle than what is going on with the macroeconomy. We could get to the second half of this year and freight starts to pick up, even though the economy could be entering a recession at that point. We are just going back to long-term trends.”

Costello said the spot market saw a significant downturn in 2022 as consumers began flying, staying at hotels and eating out, and demand for goods slipped.

Costello pointed out that housing and construction declined 9% last year, partly the result of higher interest rates, but employment in those fields increased by more than 4%.

“This doesn’t make any sense, and I think some industries are hoarding labor. They’re afraid if they get rid of some people, you know how hard it is going to be to rehire people when things pick up,” he said. “We have a very tight labor market.”

Costello also said he anticipates the truck driver shortage improving this year, and he believes the industry may need 65,000 new drivers, down from 80,000 in 2022. However, he said the driver shortage could skyrocket to more than 160,000 drivers by 2031 if the industry does not address the issue with long-term solutions.

Who's Earning What?

The average national advertised salary for truck drivers in 2022 was $80,042. Here's the breakdown:

Tanker — $82,914

Dry van — $81,150

Refrigerated — $79,693

Flatbed — $77,209

Wage increases in 2023 are expected to be in the 5% range after skyrocketing by more than 20% in the past three years.

Source: Conversion Interactive Agency

“This is a warning as I look at the demographics and who is becoming a driver and the demand coming into our industry,” he said. “And if that happens, we’ll have bare shelves in stores because of the driver shortage,” he said. “We have to figure this out.”

It’s because of that scarcity of available workers that truck driver salaries continued to increase in 2022, but conference attendees were cautioned that the era of double-digit, year-over-year pay raises probably is over, at least for the foreseeable future.

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