Porfirio Colindres has worked in construction and cleaning jobs long enough to weather several economic downturns, starting with 1989 when he moved to the United States from El Salvador. But the prolonged one where he now lives, near Boise, Idaho, has made steady work hard to find since 2007.
This month, after a 150-hour course, Colindres earned his commercial driver's license, or CDL, and started looking for a truck-driving job.
The hiring outlook is improving for trucking, experts say, and it is attracting many people from fields where jobs have dried up. As many professions become more specialized, truck driving continues to require few classroom-based skills.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, median hourly wages for heavy-truck drivers were $17.92 in May 2008. But drivers don't even need a high school diploma to be hired.
"The trucking industry doesn't require it, and we don't," said Robert McClanahan, director of Central Tech Transportation and Safety Education, a public truck driving school in Drumright, Okla. "We do ask that they have a certain math and reading level, about sixth or seventh grade."
Hiring on an uptick
Applicants for truck-driving jobs do need a relatively clean driving record, a stable work history, some mechanical ability and the strength and stamina to drive for long stretches and help with loading and unloading cargo, if needed.
And they must be prepared to be away from home, unless they can land a coveted short-haul driving job.
"When you have a family . . . you deal with a lot of guilt because you're probably not going to be there for every special occasion," said Alice Adams of Austin, Texas, a transportation writer and author of several guidebooks and manuals for truckers.
Trucking was hit hard in the recession. "This is one of the strangest times I've seen in my 40 years" in the industry, McClanahan said. "We've seen a lot of trucking companies go out of business. Trucking has always had a need for good drivers, and here all of a sudden they've had a freeze on hiring. It's just been a strange situation in the past year and a half."
But things appear to be turning around. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects overall growth of 9 percent in truck driving jobs between 2008 and 2018. Since the trucking market nationwide is huge, that's significant, representing about 291,000 new jobs. Trucking is one of the largest occupations in the country, with 3.2 million jobholders.
Industry observers also see business picking up. Orders for Class 8 trucks — the largest tractor-trailers — rose 28 percent this March over March 2009, said Clayton Boyce, a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations in Washington, D.C.
"What that means is we'll be pressured to hire more and more drivers," Boyce said. "Predictions are there may be a real capacity shortage."
McClanahan, whose school saw its student body drop from 600 to 300 during the recession, said hiring suddenly increased at the beginning of April.
"The companies were trying to hire the really good, experienced drivers, and they've been able to do that for the last year," he said. "But now that pool has dried up. Now they're starting to come back to the schools looking for entry-level students."
That's also the case in Michigan, where unemployment hit 15 percent in March.
"In the last 90 days, things have picked up, and employers are much more favorable to entry-level students than they were, say, a year ago," said David Wehman, coordinator for the truck-driving program at Baker College, in Flint.
In Idaho, where Colindres is job-hunting, truck-driving jobs are expected to grow 17.5 percent by 2019, faster than the national average. That's because of an expected increase in agricultural production, said John Van Dyke, an economist at the Idaho Department of Labor.
Careers in transition
McClanahan, a former truck driver, says most of his students are men changing careers in their mid-40s. Many have at least some college.
"We've had people in here with master's degrees," he said.
Ralph Dean, who runs the truck-driving program at the College of Western Idaho, a community college near Boise, has seen many builders come in lately. He also has taught a lot of people from Micron, a Boise microchipmaker that laid off about 3,500 workers in 2008 and 2009.
"They've got a great background," Dean said. "But they're used to being home every night, so this is a real transition. There is good money, but they've got to be gone to make it."
That's a problem for Colindres, who has three children, two in elementary school. He doesn't want to spend nights away from home. But "if there's nothing else, I'll do what I have to do," said Colindres, who left school at 10 or 11 in El Salvador to work. He later took adult education classes in California and easily passed his truck-driving classes at Sage Technical Services in Caldwell, Idaho.
Long-haul driving jobs are often the only ones available to new drivers. With seniority, they can move to positions closer to home.
After 32 years and 3.7 million miles behind the wheel, Jeff Thompson drives a tractor-trailer for FedEx but makes it home to his wife every night. Thompson, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., drives halfway from Kansas City to Chicago, where he meets a Chicago driver, trades trailers, then turns around and goes home.
"It took me a long time to get to this point, but I made it," said Thompson, an Oklahoma native who grew up driving farm trucks. He works 60 to 65 hours a week and makes $75,000 to $80,000 a year, he said.
"It's a good way to make a living, but it's a hard way to make a living," Thompson said. "When I started out in the 1970s, we used to travel all over the country, all 48 states."