Despite a national unemployment rate topping 8 percent, trucking companies are struggling to recruit and retain enough drivers due to a host of factors.
The shortage dates back to the years leading up to the Great Recession, when well-paying construction jobs were plentiful and the industry had problems finding replacements for all of the veteran drivers who were retiring. That there remain hundreds of thousands of driver vacancies today speaks in part to the waning popularity of the profession made famous by such movies as Smokey and the Bandit.
"You have drivers retiring every day," said Charlie Gray, owner of Carolina Trucking Academy in Raleigh, N.C. "For every driver that goes out the back door, you better have a driver coming in the front door. There's not a lot of people coming in the front door."
The shortage is good news for those looking for work in the industry.
Companies desperate for quality drivers have begun offering sign-on bonuses, higher salaries and safety bonuses. And yet there's still a national shortage conservatively estimated at 200,000 workers, said David Heller, director of safety and policy at the Truckload Carriers Association.
An aging workforce, a requirement that long-haul drivers be at least 21 years old and new federal safety regulations have all played a role in the current shortage.
The aging population of truck drivers, in particular, has become a bigger issue than anyone expected. Demographic changes mean there simply aren't as many potential men under the age of 35 as there were in the baby boomer generation, said Charles Clowdis, managing director of transportation industry services at IHS Global Insight.
Younger workers who traditionally may have gone into trucking choose other occupations over a life that requires long stints away from home. Since a college education is not required for truck driving but truck drivers have to be 21 to cross state lines, trucking companies lose potential employees to other industries, trade schools or the military.
Although the industry is suffering from a shortage of all types of drivers, most of the open positions are for truckload carriers, which transport goods over long distances. "The job of being an over-the-road truck driver is difficult," Clowdis said. "You're away from home; it's somewhat of an unset schedule; you may leave on Monday, get somewhere Thursday, and Friday get sent in the total opposite direction. That's the segment that's hurting the most."
New government regulations limiting drivers' hours and monitoring drivers for safety violations have exacerbated the shortage, said Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations, which put the industry's annual turnover rate at 88 percent in December. "Some companies say they could actually add more equipment if only they could find more drivers," he said.
The new rules, which went into effect in late 2010, are forcing companies to hire more workers from a smaller pool of potential drivers with no blemishes on their safety record.
Costello said the steep cost of training, averaging $4,000 to $6,000 for four to six weeks of driver-training school, is a barrier for the pool of potential workers who would be most interested in trucking. While many nationwide companies retroactively reimburse newly hired drivers monthly for the cost of schooling, potential drivers still have to front the money to the school or try to qualify for student loans.
Sources of federal funding for truck-driver training through the Workforce Investment Agency have also dried up because of budget cuts, said Cindy Atwood, deputy director of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association.
Still, at a time when many professions offer little job security, truck driving is close to a sure thing for those who meet the qualifications. "You can take a person making minimum wage and put them into school, and four to six weeks later they will be making anywhere between $38,000 (and) $40,000 entry-level, with benefits," said Atwood. "That's a pretty good story. And that job can't be outsourced."