Considering today's economy, a rare scene played out in the lobby of Tennessee Truck Driving School about a week ago.
About a dozen students listened to an employer who had traveled hundreds of miles to try to talk them into applying for a job.
R.L. Joyce Jr., a recruiter for Greensboro, N.C.-based Epes Transport System Inc., listed the benefits of working for his company — health insurance, 401(k) retirement plan, paid vacation and holidays, pay of up to 37 cents per mile, and a "Time at Home Policy."
"We try very hard to get our drivers home each week," he said.
Joyce passed out information sheets and urged the students to apply, but Epes Transport isn't the only company that has visited the school in Louisville, Tenn.
In fact, some students had already been "pre-hired" with other companies, pending completion of their training. That definitely appealed to Joni Lawson, a Clinton resident attending the school.
"It's a career where you can already have a job waiting on you when you finish school," she said.
But while long-haul truck driving is a job in heavy demand now by trucking companies, it does not seem to be in very high demand by job seekers, even in the face of continuing high unemployment levels.
Trucking industry officials and analysts say there is a nationwide shortage of truck drivers. Last month, a story in USA Today quoted industry experts as saying this is a growing problem, driven by such things as older drivers retiring, fewer younger people entering the field, an increasing government focus on driver safety records and other factors.
In June, the Council of Supply Management Professionals released its 2012 Annual State of Logistics Report, which said trucking companies across America are having difficulty recruiting drivers. In a presentation to the National Press Club, Rosalyn Wilson, author of the report, said a sampling of trucking companies polled in a recent survey found that up to 10 percent had trucks sitting idle because of a lack of drivers.
TruckGauge, an online provider of analysis and information on the trucking industry, predicts there will be a shortage of about 150,000 drivers nationally by the end of the year, and believes that new government hours-of-service rules will push the shortage to 240,000 by the end of 2013.
The shortage is definitely affecting Tennessee, said Dave Huneryager, president and CEO of the Tennessee Trucking Association.
"When you have 9,000 trucking companies in Tennessee, it is definitely a problem that is having an effect," he said.
The shortage is bad enough to have an impact on the ability to move goods, he said.
"I did an impromptu poll with eight trucking company owners at a lunch in Memphis, and each one had 2 percent to 10 percent of their trucks parked because they didn't have enough drivers," Huneryager said.
Tim Jones, general manager of Knoxville-based Burkhart Enterprises, said the company has had to leave some trucks parked because of a lack of drivers.
"We could use several drivers right now," he said.
One issue is that the truck-driving workforce is aging and drivers are retiring, but younger people do not seem to be attracted to the field, he said. Long-haul driving, with its long hours on the road and time away from home, is not an ideal job for someone with a young family.
Also, a person has to be at least 21 years old to get the necessary license, and many young people are already attracted to some other field by then, Huneryager said. Jones agreed this is a problem for Burkhart Enterprises.
"Our youngest driver is 42 years old," he said. "It seems like there just aren't many young people getting into the profession."
Tighter government regulations are also a factor. Over the past few years, drivers and companies have faced Comprehensive Safety Analysis rules, which assign points against both a driver and the motor carrier for safety infractions. Once a certain level of points is reached, the driver's commercial license could be revoked or the carrier put out of service.
This has taken a lot of long-haul drivers off the road and made companies much more cautious about the driving record of those they hire, said Greg Dotson, instructor/examiner with Tennessee Truck Driving School. David McBride, head of recruiting for Knoxville-based Colonial Freight Systems Inc., said this is not altogether a bad thing.
"That started pushing out the drivers who had not-so-stellar driving records," he said.
On top of this, new federal hours-of-service regulations are set to take effect in a year, limiting the number of hours drivers can be on the road.
Some in the industry, particularly drivers, say pay is the real cause of the driver shortage. Jim Park, a driver who blogs for Truckinginfo.com, said pay is too low and cited a study by Transport Capital Partners that concluded annual pay needs to be above $60,000 to attract sufficient drivers to the industry.
Aubrey Allen Smith, a truck-driver advocate and blogger, maintained the driver shortage is artificial because trucking companies do not want to pay the higher wages needed to attract and retain drivers. According to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the median annual wage for a tractor-trailer driver in Tennessee during 2012 was $43,330.
In 2005, the consulting firm Global Insight Inc. did a study for the American Trucking Association and concluded the supply of long-haul truck drivers would grow by 1.6 percent a year through 2015, but the demand for new drivers will grow at 2.2 percent a year during that period. The primary way to get more drivers into the industry is higher pay, the report concluded.
Barry Henson, owner of Tennessee Truck Driving School, said it trains about nine students a week. He said about the same number of students are entering his school, but the demand for drivers has greatly increased. He believes there are many people who would go into the field, if they could afford the schooling. The three-week program at Tennessee Truck Driving School costs $4,225. On the other hand, many companies agree to repay the tuition expenses for students they hire.
Lawson and other students at the truck-driving school saw the driver shortage as a good opportunity. Lawson had been a heavy-equipment operator in the Marine Corps and saw truck driving as a natural fit. Middle Tennessee resident Denise West said that after 27 years in the medical field, she was ready for something different.
"I am an empty nester, and the money and the freedom of the open road appeals to me," she said.
John Brewerof Maryville also saw trucking as a career change. His wife used to drive a truck and he thought he might, too, but did nothing about it until he lost his manufacturing job in January. Now, they will both be on the road.
"The company I am going with says my wife can drive with me. We are pre-hired," Brewer said. "I always wanted to do this."