In it for the long haul: Trucking industry’s down but far from out

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In it for the long haul:
Trucking industry’s down but far from out
By Laura Raines

For ajcjobs

Wayne and Claudia Curtis have owned Old Corps Trucking in Conyers since late 2002. With eight drivers and five trucks, they haul packages for FedEx in 48 states. Like all trucking companies, Old Corps is feeling the effects of a sluggish economy, historically high fuel prices and a shortage of truck drivers.

“We are definitely making a lot less than we were this time last year. People aren’t shopping and mailing things to Grandma in a tighter economy, and it’s harder to find qualified drivers — but it’s not so bad that we’re ready to close the doors,” Claudia Curtis said.

With a 6-year-old daughter, Asia, at home, she mainly keeps the books. But, like her husband, she has her commercial driver’s license and still drives some of the shorter routes.

“Wayne and I met in the Marines. He always loved trucks and wanted to own his own company,” Curtis said. “He went to school, got his CDL and began driving for a company to learn the ropes. I soon joined him.”

The couple trade off driving and caring for their daughter.

“You’d be surprised how many women drivers there are in the industry,” Curtis said. “Most of them like the independence. You’ve got your music [and] your coffee, and you roll. As long as you get to where you’re supposed to be safely and on time, you’re your own boss. No one tells you what to wear [or] when to go to lunch or looks over your shoulder.”

Since she’s been in the business, she’s seen the trucking lifestyle improve. “There are nicer trucks and truck stops with more showers and food options,” she said.

She carries a laptop to keep in touch and mostly feels welcome in what was traditionally a man’s job.

The couple love getting to see the country in all seasons — sights they wouldn’t see with 9-to-5 jobs — and they love going to the trucking shows to see the new rigs and products.

Asia has caught the enthusiasm.

“She can’t go on runs, but when Wayne is dropping off a truck at the shop, she loves to ride along. She tells me she can’t wait for Daddy to teach her to drive,” Curtis said.

Although being in the Marines proved to be good training for running a business, especially in hard times, the Curtises are well aware that other carriers are closing.

“It would definitely help if gas prices went down,” she said, “but Wayne and I can always drive [for another company] if we have to. Trucking is never going to go away. All that stuff in your house — a truck brought it.”

Invisible no more

“The trucking industry moves about 70 percent of all freight tonnage,” said Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations (ATA). “We are the dominant mode of transportation for moving goods.”

Trucking accounts for 7 percent of the gross national product, yet it’s been largely an invisible industry, said Mike O’Connell, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association (CVTA), the trade association for private truck-driving schools.

“On average, a can of peas is moved five times by truck, but, as long as there is food on the shelves, no one thinks about how it got there,” he said.

That’s changing, as trucking-industry woes make headlines.

The industry is coping with three major challenges: the cost of fuel, the depressed economy and a shortage of drivers, said Tiffany Wlazlowski, director of public affairs for the ATA.

“Historically, fuel was the second-highest operating cost for carriers, with drivers being the first,” she said. “Because of price hikes, fuel is now a motor carrier’s highest cost. Fuel is the lifeblood of our industry, and we’re taking it on the chin.”

Wlazlowski noted that the industry was on pace to spend about $170 billion on fuel this year, compared with $112 billion last year. Diesel fuel prices have climbed from $2.82 a gallon to about $5 a gallon this year.

Compounding the fuel issue is freight capacity. When the economy slows down, people spend less money, and manufacturers ship fewer goods.

With more trucks than freight, trucking companies have been “right-sizing” to fit demand, Costello said. Some companies have shrunk their fleets; others have gone out of business.

Avondale Partners, an independent investment-banking firm that conducts industry research, reported 935 trucking company failures in the first quarter and 970 failures in the second quarter of this year.

“If fuel costs keep rising, we would expect to see more bankruptcies in the future,” Costello said. “Truck tonnage has increased just a little bit, and that may be a positive sign, but the numbers have been very volatile, so we may not be out of the woods yet.”

Drivers wanted

The economy and high fuel prices have given companies a temporary reprieve from what will be an acute shortage of drivers in the future. With baby boomers beginning to retire, the ATA predicts that 111,000 more drivers will be needed by 2014.

“The industry will definitely need drivers in the future. The problem hasn’t gone away,” said Todd Jadin, senior vice president and general manager of Schneider National, the largest truckload carrier in the industry.

“This has been a very challenging time,” he said. “The run-up in diesel fuel prices to the $5-a-gallon level is something that I’ve not seen in my 25 years in the industry.”

Jadin said he’s proud that Schneider National has been able to address the challenges without letting equipment sit idle or laying off drivers.

“We started a Fuel School for drivers during the fuel crisis of the late 1970s, so we already had a good fuel-conservation program in place, and we’ve made it even better,” he said.

Schneider National was a founding member of SmartWay Transport, a collaboration between the Environmental Protection Agency and the freight industry to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gases.

In May, Schneider cut its fleet speed by 3 mph to a limit of 60 mph, a step that will reduce the company’s consumption of diesel fuel by more than 3.75 million gallons per year and will reduce trucks’ carbon dioxide emissions by 83.25 million pounds per year. The company has taught drivers to reduce idling-engine time and off-route miles. It has passed fuel surcharges on to its shippers when possible.

Surcharges have become much more prevalent in the industry as a way to cope with the high cost of fuel and have prevented more companies from going bankrupt, according to experts. The downside is that those costs get passed on to consumers through higher-priced goods.

Time to hit the road

Carriers are having to scrutinize every dollar they spend in this economy, Jadin said, but it is still a good time to consider a job in the industry. His advice is to choose a company wisely.

Look at the bottom line and select a company with financial stability; good wages, benefits and equipment; an excellent training program; different driving options; and a ladder for advancement, said Jim Tower, regional manager for Georgia for Werner Enterprises, a global transportation and logistics company.

“Trucking offers enormous job security. Both my grandfather and father were in the industry, and they knew that they would always be able to put food on the table,” Tower said.

During times of high unemployment, displaced workers often turn to truck driving as a transitional job or second career.

“It’s an excellent backup plan. If you’ve got a good driving record and a license, you can always get hired and make a decent salary. The problem for workers who have worked 9 to 5 and gone home to their families every night is adjusting to being on the road. Truck driving isn’t a job; it’s a lifestyle,” Tower said.

While there is some sacrifice of family time, experienced drivers can move into shorter, dedicated routes with more nights at home, or they can become trainers, dispatchers or managers.

“The rewards are that you can have a career in three weeks that will take care of you the rest of your life. This industry isn’t going away,” said David Johnson, recruiter and instructor at America’s Driving Force in Forest Park.

The accredited program offers 180 hours of instruction, and it graduated 558 truck drivers last year.

“It wasn’t a matter of whether they’d get a job, but which one they would take,” Johnson said.

Most companies train new hires (with pay) for an additional three to eight weeks before letting them go solo behind the wheel.

Johnson drove for 20 years and has taught for 10. He’s seen the industry become much more sophisticated, with high-tech equipment and a driver-friendly culture with management opportunities.

“Companies are paying drivers more now than they’ve ever paid, and the benefits are better,” Johnson said. Average starting wages are about $40,000 per year, according to a recent CVTA member survey.

“If people would only realize that this career is here and it’s real, it could be a financial solution to their problems,” he said.