Transportation, one of Nebraska's fastest-growing industries, needs workers, and labor and trucking officials are encouraging people who are unemployed or underemployed to consider applying for those jobs.
Anyone interested in jobs related to the movement of people and products by road, rail, air and water is encouraged to attend a job expo Tuesday at Metropolitan Community College's south campus that will feature about 35 transportation companies.
“We're doing industry-specific job fairs because what we're trying to do is show people where there are jobs and where there's a need. In this transportation, distribution and logistics area, they're doing lots of hiring — and all kinds,” said Deb Christensen, a business service representative for the Nebraska Department of Labor, which is sponsoring the event with the Nebraska Trucking Association.
The challenge will be matching skills with jobs, trucking industry people say.
Among those hiring is Brad Morehouse, vice president of W.N. Morehouse Truck Line. The Omaha company currently has 118 drivers and is looking to fill about five positions. Morehouse said the company could add up to 30 additional trucks to its fleet because it has the freight and customer volume, but he knows he couldn't find enough drivers.
“We get stacks and stacks of applications. We just can't get them qualified for numerous reasons,” he said. “Sometimes it's our own company policy, while the other half would be regulations — government regulations, physical regulations. There's so many and it's definitely gotten more challenging.”
Another issue is that because the state requires drivers be at least 21 years old before they can drive a truck across state lines, high school graduates who choose to not go to college select a different trade to pursue. They become electricians, plumbers and framers.
“There's different options,” he said, “but we're not one of the options.”
Generally, trucking companies require that driver applicants have a commercial driver's license, some over-the-road driving experience and a good driving record and work history. Other companies offer on-the-job training opportunities.
Christensen said insurance companies have a lot of influence on driver requirements. They want experienced, safe drivers because of the injury they can cause on the road and the high cost of the trucks.
Nationally, about 90 percent of for-hire truckload carriers say they can't find enough drivers who meet U.S. Department of Transportation requirements, according to a study last year by the American Trucking Associations. The group estimates the industry is short 20,000 to 25,000 drivers now and says the driver shortage could balloon to 239,000 by 2022.
The driver shortage could lead to delayed shipping of products and shortages of products for the consumers to purchase. Long term, the shortage of transportation workers could be felt in consumers' pocketbooks in the form of higher prices at the meat counter or retail stores, said Larry Johnson, president of the Nebraska Trucking Association.
The American Trucking Associations has said the bulk of the shortage is in long-haul, over-the-road jobs.
While drivers and diesel mechanics are the most immediate need, the Tuesday event is geared toward any position in transportation, like the planning, management and distribution processes. Those jobs can include warehouse workers, dispatchers and office managers.
The event isn't just for people new to transportation, but also for students who are choosing a career and for workers looking to re-enter the field and move up.
“We want people to see there's room for them to move up in the industry,” Christensen said. “With their knowledge, they can do a lot to help the industry.”
In 2010, the transportation and warehousing industry employed 49,578 in the state, according to projections by the Nebraska Department of Labor, and the department projects it will grow 17.6 percent by 2020. That puts it behind only three other categories: mining (18 percent), construction (22.5 percent) and administration/waste management services (18.8 percent).
Each transportation and warehousing subcategory shows strong growth the next 10 years: air transportation at 13.7 percent, rail transportation at 15.5 percent and truck transportation at 21.6 percent. The support activities for transportation subcategory, which is generally logistics, is projected to grow 16.8 percent.
Truck driving in particular has been designated as a “hot job” by the state because there are more openings than applicants, Christensen said.
The driver shortage remains a challenge for Sarpy-based Werner Enterprises, one of the largest trucking firms in the nation. In its fourth quarter of 2012 earnings report, Werner pointed to driver pay increases by competitors, fewer and increased competition for truck driving school graduates and an improved housing construction market as factors.
Werner's executive vice president-driver resources, Bob Synowicki, said it's difficult to quantify the number of people transportation has lost to construction, but the company has noticed the trend increase the past several months.
That's despite its truck-driving pay — starting at about $40,000 annually and reaching more than $60,000 annually.
The draw of construction jobs, Synowicki said, is that they allow for workers to get home every night.
He said Werner's driver retention rates improved some during the fourth quarter, noting that about 70 percent of its driving jobs are shorter-haul, regional fleet operations that allow drivers to get home weekly or sooner.
Johnson said there have been pushes by companies to ensure workers are getting home regularly and partnerships by community colleges and the Nebraska Departments of Education, Economic Development and Labor to help steer applicants toward the industry.
But he thinks it'll take more than that for workers to realize the opportunities.
“The big national problem is kind of a systemic result, maybe because of an emphasis on (higher) education over the last 20 years,” he said. “What we're seeing in the economy is that it's going to take some time to change people's minds — not only the workers, but the young workers, parents and high school counselors.”
The positive side is that the expos seem to help. Last year, Johnson said, similar expos specifically for truck drivers and diesel mechanics drew big turnouts, and companies, the underemployed and unemployed made connections.
“We hope that people will enter by choice, not chance,” he said.