Is the trucking industry running out of drivers?
A lack of young drivers entering the field and rigorous new safety standards enforced by the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Public Affairs Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration are keeping driver turnover close to 80 percent.
Nick Harvey, a sales representative at Swafford Transport and Warehouse, says the average age of the driver is continually rising, partly because the profession is unattractive for the younger generation. “Young people generally see truck driving as an unattractive job. It can be a tough lifestyle and the younger generation just doesn’t want to do it.”
“It’s safe to say that most parents don’t raise their children to be truck drivers. It’s more of a blue collar type job and most parents encourage their children to aim for higher careers. We have to overcome that during the high school years,” says Rick Todd, President and Chief Executive Officer of the South Carolina Trucking Association.
According to Harvey, industry experts estimate a shortage of over 400,000 drivers over the next three years. In an economic climate where good jobs may be hard to find, trucking jobs are readily available to those who are willing. “We have to figure out as an industry how to interest people in driving as a career. We have to figure out how to interest people who are changing careers or coming out of the military, and how to get them into the industry easily.”
The Federal Government and U.S. Department of Defense already have initiatives in place to make it easier for ex-military to get their CDL license if they have previous driving experience. Industry pay ranges from $30,000 to $90,000.
“It’s pretty good pay considering you don’t have to go to college and take those earning years out of your life, and there are good benefits and as long as you are safe and dependable. It is a stable job. The industry is full of guys who have driven their whole careers. You can drive into your seventies as long as you maintain your physical requirements,” says Todd.
If you are going to drive a dump truck or a single unit, not a combination tractor trailer, you can get a Class B license and drive within South Carolina at 18 years old. To cross state lines, federal law requires drivers to be 21 years old. Todd says the industry talked about doing some pilot projects and maybe lowering the driving age because by the time potential drivers are 21, or 23 if you account for the basic two years of experience required by some companies, they have gone on and pursued another career.
New safety regulations are also raising costs for the trucking industry and contributing to turnover and the rising need for drivers. Operating authority used to be in the hands of the industry, but now the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has enacted a new safety initiative called the Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) program. At the center of the CSA is the Safety Measurement System (SMS), which includes new requirements for measuring a driver’s performance, a company’s overall record and crash accountability, maintenance of equipment, screenings for hiring including physicals and drug testing.
The new regulations are intended to raise the safety bar for commercial carriers. “They are scoring companies differently now and it has added a whole new dynamic to the carrier/shipper relationship. You may be excellent in technical scores but may be lacking in another area. Scoring high in one and low in another could jeopardize your safety status, and customers weigh those factors when they decide whether or not to use your services. It’s making it harder for companies to make money and the smaller they are the harder it is to compete,” says Todd.
The industry is changing rapidly, says Brian Chambers, Department head for the Truck Driver Training program at Greenville Technical College. He says new mandates limit the amount of time a trucker can be behind the wheel and new technologies are making trucking safer, but it can be costly. “Companies are required to do a background check into their employees in the trucking industry and they can go back as far as 10 years. The industry is going to all electronic drive sheets that monitor the hours they drive. There are cameras now on the outside of trucks that allow drivers to see what’s around them, and some have radar systems that override the driver and slow the vehicle down when approaching a vehicle to avoid tailgating.”
Onboard electronic devices are soon going to be mandated by the federal government that will make the industry more efficient. Chambers says the new technologies help from the law enforcement side, they help the driver, and also streamlines company auditing. “Drivers were getting complacent and weren’t driving as safely as they could. Drivers are now issued points for certain violations and when they reach a certain number, they can no longer drive a truck,” he says.
Other changes in the industry include a rise of female drivers and the increase in retirees behind the wheel. “There are a lot of drivers that are older. Most people can retire at 65. It’s not uncommon for a trainer to come back after they have been a car salesman or air conditioner repairman and have done their tenure in that field. They like to travel so there is no better way to do it than getting paid for it. They come back to us, go through that training program and get a job. We see students as old as 70.” Greenville Tech’s program is 9 weeks long, Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m to 5 p.m. Upon completion students go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to take a state exam. Chambers says as long as the student has no violations that would prevent them from getting a CDL permit, they pass a DOT physical and drug screen, have no felonies involving a motor vehicle and have command of the English language, there are jobs available straight out of school.
Chambers says recently the trucking job market has exploded and companies are recruiting again. “Field recruiters were one of the first things companies did away with in the tough economy, but I have two or three field recruiters call me a week now trying to get in to see my students,” he says. The program at Greenville Tech costs $2009 for Greenville County students. If they receive lottery assistance, a student’s out of pocket tuition is $1073. There currently is a waiting list for the program.
Students are not only driving trucks, many are getting into safety and securement of hazardous materials, becoming dispatchers, mechanics, terminal managers, or are getting into the administration, training or sales side of the industry. As more industry moves into the area, the demand for truckers will continue to rise.
“When companies ship product, they have to put it on a truck. The train only goes so far. Airplanes and boats only carry it so far. Companies don’t build warehouses and keep them stocked anymore. It’s mostly ‘just in time’ business from the manufacturer to the customer,” says Chambers. “Raw materials or finished goods that leave or come into the country, they have to go on a truck.”