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3:33 am
Mon October 31, 2011

Thousands Of Trucking Jobs, But Few Take The Wheel

Originally published on Mon October 31, 2011 7:44 pm

Tough as it is to find work these days, tens of thousands of jobs paying middle-class wages are going unfilled.

Open truck-driving jobs require little more than a high school diploma and a month or so of training. But not everybody wants to be a long-haul truck driver, and many who do find they just can't hack it.

The story began three years ago when freight traffic fell off a cliff, pulling tens of thousands of truck drivers down with it. But now, at the American Central Transport terminal in Kansas City, Mo., recruiting manager Chad Still is showing off a lot of empty concrete.

"Not a lot going on over here today, which in the trucking industry, that's a [big] deal," Still says. "The less trucks and trailers you see around here, the better the freight is."

Freight is now moving at pre-recession levels and companies are hiring. Transportation analyst Noel Perry figures trucking companies are short of about 125,000 drivers. What's the hold up?

"It's real simple," he says. "Let's say you get laid off tomorrow. Do you have a commercial driver's license? No."

Learning To Drive An 18-Wheeler

For that you'd have to spend five or six weeks and a few thousand dollars at an institution like the Fort Scott Community College truck-driving school in Kansas City, Kan., where students like Cory Dockery come to restart their careers.

"I looked on the Internet and that's all you [basically see for] work: driving jobs and, I guess, working in the health care field. I really didn't want to be a nurse," Dockery says.

But mastering an 18-wheeler is not as easy as it looks. Dockery and another new driver are trained by John Williams, a second-generation trucker. Dockery is focused on mastering all the shifting and tricky backing maneuvers; landing a job is the least of his worries.

"I never thought in my wildest mind that I would ever be a truck driver, you know," he says. "But the way times [are] changing now, you have to find something that's going to be steady and permanent."

Permanent, maybe not: Many people who go into trucking seem to be in a hurry to get out of it.

"Trucking is an industry that goes through people like oats go through a horse. It's a tough job," says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

He ought to know: He used to be a trucker. Spencer says this driver shortage is a myth.

"It's not a shortage; the problem is retention," he says. "And you won't be able to keep good people if you don't pay them comparatively for the demands that you ask."

Rough Demands From The Job

Long-haul truckers can pull down more than $50,000 before expenses, but it can be a brutal job. Truckers routinely drive for weeks on end without ever going home. They work and live in a cab about the size of a large office cubicle, eating in truck stops and sleeping in parking lots.

They're paid not for their time, but for the miles they drive. They see family only when work permits. Bob Costello of the American Trucking Associations says the work is getting less forgiving.

"If you are a new driver to this industry, you better be on your game every day," he says. "Because once you get a record — [if] you got in an accident, it was your fault — you're going to be fired, and it's going to be very difficult to find another job in the industry."

There's no escaping the scrutiny these days. The government now tracks each violation, from flat tires to fudged records, and scores each driver — a new requirement from last year. Coming regulations will likely trim the maximum workday and force truckers with serious health problems to get off the road.

All this is pushing some drivers out, and making quality drivers increasingly valuable. Bert Johnson with Con-way Truckload says the industry is just starting to respond.

"Pay has gone up a little bit, but really in the grand scheme of things we're paying people the same way we paid years ago," he says. "That's going to change, though."

It will change for the better as far as drivers are concerned. Johnson says companies are also adding benefits, like better health care and signing benefits, even refiguring logistics to get drivers home more often. Because just about everyone in the industry agrees: Good, safe, conscientious truckers are totally in the driver's seat these days.

Copyright 2013 KCUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kcur.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Even with unemployment at just over 9 percent, some jobs go unfilled, and that includes tens of thousands of jobs that pay middle-class wages. Many require little more than a high school diploma and a month or so of training. But it turns out that not everybody wants to be a long-haul truck driver. People are reluctant, even though demand for truck drivers is rising fast. Frank Morris, of member station KCUR, reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The story really begins three years ago, when freight traffic fell off a cliff, pulling down with it tens of thousands of truck drivers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINES)

MORRIS: But now, at the American Central Transport terminal in Kansas City, Chad Still is showing off a lot of empty concrete.

CHAD STILL: Not a lot going on over here today, which in the trucking industry, that's a great deal. The less trucks and trailers you see around here means the better the freight is.

MORRIS: Freight is moving at pre-recession levels, and companies are hiring.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: True to blue. Call Con-way today at 866-WORK, the number 4, US - 866-WORK-4-US. Or visit Con-way.com...

MORRIS: Analyst Noel Perry figures trucking companies are short about 125,000 drivers. So what's the hold-up?

NOEL PERRY: It's real simple. Let's say you get laid off tomorrow. Do you have a commercial driver's license? No.

MORRIS: For that, you'd have to spend five or six weeks, and a few thousand dollars, at an institution like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE)

MORRIS: The Fort Scott Community College Truck Driving School in Kansas City, Kansas, where students like Cory Dockery come to restart their careers.

CORY DOCKERY: I looked on the Internet and that's all you really, basically, seen in work - driving jobs, and I guess working in the health-care field. And I really didn't want to be a nurse.

MORRIS: But mastering an 18-wheeler is not as easy as it looks.

JOHN WILLIMANS: ...ramp. It's a 25-mile-an-hour ramp, and we want to be down into sixth gear for whenever we make the turn.

MORRIS: Today, John Williams, a second-generation trucker, is coaching Dockery and another student through traffic out on I-70.

WILLIMANS: We're going into the ramp. Slow down just - slow down; slow down just a little bit.

MORRIS: Cory Dockery is just focused on mastering all the shifting and tricky backing maneuvers. Landing a job is the least of his worries.

DOCKERY: I never thought, in my wildest mind, that I would ever be a truck driver, you know. But the way times is changing now, it's like you have to find something that's going to be steady and permanent.

MORRIS: Permanent, maybe not. A lot of people who go into trucking seem to be in a hurry to get out of it.

TODD SPENCER: Trucking is an industry that goes through people like oats go through a horse. It's a tough job.

MORRIS: Todd Spencer ought to know. He used to be a trucker - still looks like one. Now, he's executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. He says this driver shortage is a myth.

SPENCER: It's not a shortage. The problem is retention. And you won't be able to keep good people if you don't pay them comparatively for the demands that you ask.

MORRIS: Long-haul truckers can pull down more than 50K before expenses. But it can be a pretty brutal job. Truckers routinely drive for weeks on end without ever going home. They work, and live, in a cab about the size of a large office cubical, eating in truck stops, sleeping in the parking lots. They're paid not for their time, but for the miles they drive. They see family only when work permits. And Bob Costello, with the American Trucking Associations, says the work is getting less forgiving all the time.

BOB COSTELLO: If you're a new driver to this industry, you had better be on your game every day because once you get a record - you got in an accident; it was your fault - you're going to be fired, and it's going to be very difficult to find another job in the industry.

MORRIS: There's no escaping the scrutiny these days. The government now tracks each violation, from flat tires to fudged records, and scores each driver. That's new, last year. Coming regulations will likely trim the maximum work day, and force truckers with serious health problems to get off the road. All this is pushing some drivers out, and making quality drivers more and more valuable. Bert Johnson, with Con-way Truckload, says the industry is just starting to respond.

BERT JOHNSON: Pay's gone up a little bit but really, in the grand scheme of things, we're paying people the same way we paid years ago. Now, that's going to change, though.

MORRIS: For the better, as far as drivers are concerned. Johnson says companies are also adding benefits, like better health care and signing bonuses, even re-jiggering logistics to get drivers home more often. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.