December 12, 2016 10:00 AM, EST

S.C. Truck Driver Shortages Push Companies to Seek Younger Candidates

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News

Truck drivers are an aging population in South Carolina. Nearly half of commercial licensees are more than 52 years old and most of the state’s trucking companies have driver shortages — right now.

The need for new drivers is critical, some industry leaders say, but not new. The trucking industry has been pointing out the problem for at least five years. The problem also is not confined to South Carolina.

A new study prepared for the state's General Assembly set the national truck driver shortage last year at 48,000 drivers. South Carolina was about 2,000 drivers short, according to trucking officials in the state, and they think it’s time for state and local government to help solve the problem.

“We know there is a shortage today,” said Rick Todd, South Carolina Trucking Association president and CEO. “We can see the shortage coming — it’s documented, and we have to figure out a multipronged approach to be in a position where we have an adequate pool of drivers that we can call on.”

Help from the General Assembly could come in several forms, Todd said.

Scholarship programs and tuition reimbursement could help interested candidates pay for training. The Legislature could also do an assessment of the state’s technical colleges to make sure there are enough instructors in the commercial driver’s license, or CDL, courses and that those instructors are adequately paid, he said.

One of the major ways the General Assembly might assist in alleviating the truck driver problem is through influence. The study recommends that public agencies use their truck fleets to provide entry-level employment opportunities to newly licensed CDL drivers.

Because government agencies have limited liability, with supervised, in-state drivers who generally don’t travel at top speeds, they could hire drivers fresh out of CDL school, said Todd, who was on the report study committee. Those government agencies can provide the young drivers with invaluable experience.

“Give them the first line of employment,” Todd said. “Then that could, in effect, be a farm team for the private sector, should they choose to go to work for the private sector.”

Another obstacle reported in the study is driver age versus driver experience — and insurance.

Private-sector fleet operators and commercial truck insurance companies told the study committee that tort laws and insurance liability issues pose a unique problem in filling a pipeline of new and younger truckers.

Though a driver can get a CDL at 18 under South Carolina state law, he or she must be 21 to drive across the state line. Insurance can be tough to get for entry-level CDL drivers because they have no experience. They can’t get experience, and companies can’t hire them, because they can’t be insured, the report points out.

Truck driving is one of the jobs in South Carolina for which there are almost always numerous openings, experts say, and the drivers can earn about $50,000 to start, with less than six months of driver training. Trucks annually transport 84% of the manufactured freight in the Palmetto State, the report said.

Nationally, the driver shortage is expected to reach 175,000 over the next eight years, according to a 2015 analysis cited in the report, and 350,000 drivers short in 10 years.

“A lot of your private institutions and technical schools have had driving schools for a long time,” said Gregg Grubbs, G&P Trucking Company safety and human resources vice president in Gaston. But limitations on equipment for training and insurance concerns have made it “tough sledding” for the schools, Grubbs said.

“When they go through that training they typically are not prepared to jump in a truck and go drive,” Grubbs said. “What we do as a company is we take these students and put them through at least a minimum of an additional four weeks of training of which all of that is behind the wheel.”

That gives drivers 200 to 240 additional hours of on-the-road driver training with a certified trainer seated next to them. “We make that investment in them because we need drivers — and we find these drivers don’t have any bad habits yet.”

For three years, G&P Trucking Co. has operated a finishing program for drivers that the U.S. Department of Labor acknowledges as a registered apprenticeship program that can be used as a model by employers who hire entry-level CDL operators, according to the state’s trucking study. This year the program will yield about 130 new drivers, though some “wash out” in the process, Grubbs said.

Some new drivers find the trucking lifestyle is not for them, trucking executives said. The hours can be long. Drivers may have to be away from home and living out of their trucks for extended periods of time, and they sit in traffic a lot.

Southeastern Freight Lines of Lexington tries to build its driver ranks internally, promoting from within, according to Richard Bogan, a company senior vice president, though the company also hires outside drivers.

“We have freight handlers, for instance, who we’ll take if he’s been with us for a while, and teach him or her how to drive a truck,” Bogan said. “We do classroom training and on-the-job training within our own facility. We progressively help someone become a driver and that helps us with a percentage of our drivers so we don’t have to go to the marketplace.”

Right now, the company is not hurting for drivers in the Columbia area, Bogan said. Come spring, the beginning of the busy season for the company, that could change quickly, he said. Each market in which the truck line has a terminal is different, Bogan said, from the business load to the difficulty in finding qualified drivers.

Generally, truck drivers earn $800 to $1,000 a week, truck executives said, though some earn $75,000 a year. Southeastern Freight Lines does not offer bonuses to sign up drivers, Bogan said. G&P Trucking does offer bonuses for drivers, Grubbs said.

In South Carolina, the trucking association is going to work actively with the state’s technical college system and the K-12 system to have young people become more aware of the careers the industry has to offer, said Tim Hardee, South Carolina Technical College System president, which prepared the trucking study.

Hardee likened the problem to the state’s nursing shortage several years ago.

Another goal would be to make the industry more attractive, he said. “We can solve it much better if we work together,” Hardee said. Last year, about 500 students completed CDL training through the technical college system, he said. “We’re already addressing it, we just want to increase those numbers of students that would go into the CDL training across the state.”

As the driver population continues to age, the need for drivers will increase, Hardee said.