Lots of jobs in trucking, but drivers find a tough haul

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MINNEAPOLIS -- Michael Lee has been living on the road since 1993.

The 63-year-old trucker from Willmar, Minn., goes by "Gypsy Lee," and he's busy. Christmas Day he was hauling a trailer full of lubricant to windswept oil country near Williston, N.D. Then on to Chicago. "I don't have a home anymore," he said. "I live in the truck."

These days, there's plenty of work for anyone willing to live the life of a long-haul trucker. A trade group that represents the largest carriers says they need up to 25,000 drivers to sign up today.

Longtime drivers are retiring, and shipping demand is growing. Yet it's not easy to find people willing to embrace the solitude and separation from family that comes with driving a semitrailer truck across the country for a living.

Long-haul truckers spend weeks on the road. They sleep in their cabs or strange beds, shower in truck stops, and miss graduations and birthdays.

"It is the least desirable of all trucking jobs," said Richard Hawkins, director of corporate transportation at Dakota County Technical College, which had to close its truck driving school because students don't want to pay up to $5,000 for the training.

The American Trucking Association, which represents the big carriers, said in November that the need for drivers is "acute" and that "long-term trends could cause the shortage to explode in the next decade." The association sees 100,000 jobs opening each year for the next decade due to retirement and turnover.

Learn to drive a truck on the back 40, and you can get a license and probably find work, though many companies require two years of experience or a certificate from an accredited driving school. The certificate generally takes 160 hours of training and costs up to $5,000.

Trucker pay averaged $19.83 per hour in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But compensation depends on mileage, and companies structure pay in different ways. Paychecks depend on weather, traffic and quick weigh-station visits. The pay is not keeping up with inflation, and turnover is rampant.

Just like manufacturers, who also complain of a labor shortage, trucking companies are not paying more for drivers and are finding it hard to fill jobs. From 2007 to 2011, the pay for heavy-truck drivers rose 51 cents in the United States, according to the bureau. Take inflation into account, and that was a 3 percent pay cut.

Roy Olds, 48, of Dubuque, Iowa, drives a rig that delivers cars. He thinks the ATA's numbers are bogus, an attempt to perpetuate a myth of a trucker shortage when the reality is that big companies can't retain drivers because they don't pay enough.

"They want to fill seats," he said during a stop in South St. Paul, Minn. "They're hiring people with no experience, and then they're cycling through them."

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a trade group often at odds with the ATA, agrees with Mr. Olds. "If there were truly a shortage, then companies would be raising pay," said Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the association.

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