Trucking Industry Works to Put More Drivers on the Road

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By Ross Boettcher

The trucking industry is still 18 to 24 months from hitting a peak driver shortage, but consumers already are feeling the impact.

Transportation costs the last couple of years have increased about 3 percent a year, and at least one-third of that hike is tied to a shortage of truck drivers, said Derek Leathers, the president and chief operating officer of Sarpy County-based Werner Enterprises.

Those charges are passed through to consumers on everyday products from groceries and clothes to electronics and housewares.

“And that has the potential to increase in coming years,” Leathers said.

Meanwhile, the industry is working to ease the impact in the Midlands. A strong community college system, partnerships with the Nebraska Departments of Labor and Economic Development, and initiatives by major carriers including Werner and Crete Carrier Corp. to get drivers home more often all have helped keep the trucking industry on solid footing, said Larry Johnson, president of the Nebraska Trucking Association.

“We have the right partners at the table and the education system to help develop long-term solutions,” Johnson said. “That will continue to create a competitive advantage for us.”

According to estimates from the Truckload Carriers Association, trucking companies across the United States are currently facing a shortage of upward of 200,000 drivers. Others, including Bob Costello, the chief economist and vice president of the American Trucking Association, say the current shortfall is closer to 20,000 or 30,000 drivers.

“If we were short 200,000 drivers, freight would be sitting everywhere. It isn't,” Costello said, adding that the shortfall could “continue to swell if we don't attract more people to the industry.”

Leathers agrees with the Truckload Carriers Association's estimate but said that figure won't be realized until at least a year and a half from now.

You can blame the Great Recession: Consumer spending hit the brakes. Manufacturers slowed the production of goods. And the demand for long-haul trucking and freight sagged.

Veteran truckers needing to support their families — especially independent truckers and those driving for smaller fleets — left the industry, sold their trucks and equipment, and found work elsewhere, said David Heller, director of safety and policy for the Truckload Carriers Association.

They haven't come back.

The industry is failing to land enough young recruits as baby boomer drivers are on the brink of retirement. The allure of a trucking career has faded, and high school graduates can't transition right into the driver pool because they're required to wait until they're 21 to obtain their commercial driver's license. Additionally, many truck driving courses cost more than $6,000, a large amount for an unemployed worker interested in a career in truck driving.

“We're kind of losing them on both ends, if you will,” Heller said. “It's really been this perfect storm of economic woes.”

For now, Werner is rolling along normally, Leathers said. The company has about 100 driver openings, a number he said is typical because of retirements and drivers taking leaves of absence.

Crete Carrier Corp., based in Lincoln, has grappled with the driver shortage for years and has roughly 300 driver openings across the country, according to the company's website.

The company has the business and customer base to expand, but not enough good drivers to fill their tractor cabs, said Tim Aschoff, Crete's vice president of risk management.

“We've been operating in that mode for a number of years, since the driver supply never became abundant,” he said.

At least one private driving school has seen an uptick in drivers coming through its program. At JTL Truck Driver Training, 10008 Sapp Brothers Dr., 110 people have enrolled this year in the company's four-week driving course and received their commercial driver's license through July. In a typical year, about 120 people graduate from the course said Larry Marsh, owner of JTL.

“This has been our best year in probably 11 years,” Marsh said. “It seems like people are more willing to invest in themselves to start a new career.”

One of those people is Hartley Pinder.

The 23-year-old Miami native, who currently lives in Omaha, is pursuing a career in long-haul truck driving... Continue reading.