Truck companies scramble to find enough workers


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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Despite a national unemployment rate topping 8 percent, trucking companies are struggling to recruit and retain enough drivers.

The shortage dates back to the years leading up to the Great Recession, when well-paying construction jobs were plentiful and the industry had problems finding replacements for all of the veteran drivers who were retiring. That there remain hundreds of thousands of driver vacancies today -- four years after the real estate bust -- speaks in part to the waning popularity of the profession.

"For every driver that goes out the back door, you better have a driver coming in the front door. There's not a lot of people coming in the front door," said Charlie Gray, owner of Carolina Trucking Academy in Raleigh.

The shortage is good news for those looking for work in the industry. Companies desperate for quality drivers have begun offering sign-on bonuses, higher salaries and safety bonuses. And yet there's still a national shortage, conservatively estimated, of at least 200,000 workers, said David Heller, director of safety and policy at the Truckload Carriers Association.

An aging workforce, a requirement that long-haul drivers be at least 21 years old and new federal safety regulations have all played a role in the shortage. Younger workers who traditionally may have gone into trucking choose other occupations over a life that requires long stints away from home. Since a college education is not required for truck driving, but truck drivers have to be 21 to cross state lines, trucking companies lose potential employees who go to other industries, enroll in a trade school or enter the military.

Although the industry is suffering from a shortage of all types of drivers, most of the open positions are for truckload carriers, which transport goods over long distances. New government regulations limiting drivers' hours and monitoring drivers for safety violations have exacerbated the shortage, said Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Association, which put the industry's annual turnover rate at 88 percent in December. New rules, which went into effect in late 2010, force companies to hire more workers from a smaller pool of potential drivers with no blemishes on their safety record.

Mr. Costello said the steep cost of training, averaging around $4,000 to $6,000 for four to six weeks of driver-training school, is a barrier to entry for the pool of potential workers who would be most interested. While many companies will reimburse drivers for the cost of schooling, potential drivers still have to front the money in advance to the school or try to qualify for student loans.

Still, at a time when many professions offer little job security, truck driving is as close to a sure thing for those who meet the qualifications.

"You can take a person making minimum wage and put them into school, and four to six weeks later they will be making anywhere between $38,000 [and] $40,000 entry-level, with benefits," said Cindy Atwood, deputy director of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association. "That's a pretty good story. And that job can't be outsourced."

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