Gary Jones lost his job in December after working in construction for nearly 30 years. At 55 and retirement still years away, he needed a new career and a steady paycheck. He got his wish.
Jones recently juggled six job offers and expects to earn $40,000 over the next year by joining the ranks of the 3.5 million truckers who shuttle freight on American roads. The transportation industry needs a lot more people like Jones to fill a nationwide shortage of truckers that may hit 300,000 next year.
"People can't find jobs in Florida," said Jones of Wesley Chapel. "This is an avenue to pursue."
It sure is, although it seems odd there would be a shortage of truck drivers with a national unemployment rate of 9.1 per cent (10.6 percent in Florida) and the economy just stumbling along.
New standards enacted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration forced carriers to scrutinize the employment, driving and criminal histories of applicants — weeding out many problem drivers. That, coupled with carriers gutting recruiting departments and downsizing fleets during the Great Recession, triggered the shortage.
The new rules have caused an operational hardship, although safer drivers on the road are better for the public, said Bob Costello, chief economist at the American Trucking Association.
He calls the shortage "a quality issue, not a quantity issue." On the flip side, "drivers who have good records are in high demand," he said. The shortage has prompted the group to launch a nationwide recruiting campaign.
Many jobs have starting wages higher than $35,000. Advertisements litter billboards, the Internet and print publications. Still, to the bafflement of the trucking industry, the calls go unanswered.
"The pool of applicants just isn't there to fill these jobs," said Mary Lou Rajchel, president of the Florida Trucking Association. "The doors are open to hire professional truckers."
The days of people wanting to grab a CB radio while steering 80,000-pound rigs across the freeways are waning as baby boomers approach the twilight of their careers.
"The younger generation is not willing to do this work," said Doc Hyder, president of Rowland Transportation in Dade City.
Hyder is seeing more turnover among his 91 drivers as they test the waters at other firms. Shipping costs will rise as carriers battle for drivers, he said.
"It will lead to higher wages for drivers," he said. "It's what they deserve."
For years, the industry battled negative stereotypes made famous by movies like Smokey and the Bandit and news stories about problem drivers moving between carriers in the same week.
That era seems over, now that new federal requirements make it harder for problem drivers fired by one carrier to be hired by another. Companies now have easier access to driver records on crashes and roadside-inspections.
More than 100,000 truckers work in Florida. The career does have a downside and isn't a 9-to-5 job with weekends at home. Drivers exchange their beds for bunks inside rigs and eat at roadside diners in small town America. Rest areas or truck stops become home for weeks at a time.
The industry is battling a turnover rate of 35 percent, said Noel Perry, a partner in FTR Associates of Nashville, Ind., which researches the trucking and freight industries.
He pegs the current shortage at 124,000 drivers and expects it to hit 300,000 next year. Everybody in America will be affected, Perry said, adding: "It means we will be paying more for everything we buy. This problem will certainly get worse."
Many carriers entice applicants with free training or tuition reimbursement if they'll commit to working for a certain period of time. Unfortunately, some carriers exclude Florida hires because the state isn't in their traffic lanes, adding to the challenge of getting drivers home for their days off.
The economy is making it hard for others to pay for training.
Kenneth Whittington, vice president of operations for Roadmaster Drivers School of Tampa, said about 350 people took the course in the last year. The $6,500 tuition, he said, is a deterrent.
"It's a shame," he said. "We've got carriers who will hire everybody we produce."
Jones, who completed the three-week course on Friday, is excited about his new career.
"I am a homeowner," he said. "I have a lifestyle to maintain. I know I can work until I'm 70 if I stay healthy."
Joanne Killcrece, 53 of Tampa also completed the course last week. She landed a job with a Dallas-based carrier that hauls freight in 48 states and Canada. The single woman expects to be away from Tampa for five-week stretches and will visit relatives during her downtime in cities across the county.
The former health care worker, who picked "Blonde Sunshine" for her CB handle, expects the job to be demanding and doesn't fear slinging cargo across loading docks. She is just glad to have a job.
"I'm prepared for it," she said, smiling. "It's going to be hard, but I've always been a stocky gal."
Mark Puente can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markapuente.