September 10, 2012

Wanted: Truck drivers

Photo / Pablo Robles
Photo / Pablo Robles
The next generation of truck drivers are in training at the New England Tractor Training School in Somers and their job prospects are bright as eager employers are hiring.

The market for truck drivers is tightening up.

While Connecticut trucking companies aren't yet facing the driver shortages some national logistics companies are seeing, some are turning to rookies to fill the seats long held by more experienced drivers.

Whether local or long-haul, "if you're an experienced driver, you're a hot commodity," says Mike Reilly, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut.

Carl Stebbins, director of admissions at New England Tractor Training School, said, "We are seeing more companies calling us looking for drivers, and more of them are willing to take recent grads. So while there may not be a shortage of local drivers, the supply is tighter."

That view of a tighter market was seconded by Jason Randall, director of human resources at Peter Pan Bus Co., which serves the Northeast from Boston to Washington, D.C.

"The labor pool is sufficient to meet our needs," Randall said, "but the labor pool is not as robust as it used to be. It used to be when we had a job fair, the line was out the door. Now that line is definitely smaller," he said, adding, "The caliber of driver has changed, too. Our applicants are not as experienced as in years past, and they have changed jobs a lot."

Some firms, such as UPS, have an abundance of drivers because of attractive pay packages. All UPS drivers are Teamsters and are promoted from within the company.

Others, such as Swift Transportation, the largest publicly owned long-haul truck carrier in the United States, are trying signing bonuses and new incentive pay packages to attract and keep drivers.

Swift's Northeast Regional Recruiter Nancy Perkins says that while Swift is seeing driver supply decline, it is finding needed drivers at regional driving schools. "We work with regional training schools, where the supply of drivers is good. We also do a lot or trade shows, job fairs and advertising to meet our needs," she said.

That shift has been noticed by Rick Mocarski, placement director for New England Tractor Training School. "Most companies are looking for drivers with experience, but for the over-the-road, long-haul market, trucking firms are more willing to consider recent graduates," he said.

New England Tractor Training School has two training locations in Connecticut, Somers and Bridgeport, one in North Andover, Mass., and a fourth in Pawtucket, RI.

According to the American Trucking Associations, large long-haul trucking firms experienced an average of 90 percent turnover in the first quarter of 2012. That was up from 75 percent in the same period in 2011, a figure that was nearly double the 39 percent turnover in 2010. Many new drivers find the long hours away from home too grueling and soon leave the business.

Trucking association and federal estimates put the national long-haul shortage at 100,000 to 200,000 drivers.

Lifestyle issues and safety regulations are largely behind the trend. In the national long-haul trucking market, there is a large group of experienced drivers who are retiring or who soon will be. They are not being replaced at the rate they are retiring by young drivers.

Long-haul drivers are often away from home weeks at a time. The schedule is demanding. The hours are long and varied. That's not an appealing lifestyle for a young driver with a family. Those drivers are seeking more local jobs.

Among the beneficiaries are shorter-haul carriers like Peter Pan Bus Co., which is experiencing a turnover rate of only 17%, says Randall. "The softer economy has reduced that rate a bit over the past few years. Fewer drivers are leaving us. Most of our drivers are home after their shift, though some have to stay away some of the time, especially on charter trips."

Another factor reducing driver supply is federal regulations passed in 2004 that limit how long drivers can remain on the road each shift before resting. Under the rules, truckers can drive for 11 hours at a time, but they have to take 10 hours off between shifts, two more hours than previously required.

Then in 2010 the federal government started publishing the safety records not only of trucking companies but also of individual drivers. This has led many companies to increase hiring standards and limit employment to drivers with excellent safety records.

The slower economy has reduced the movement of goods generally and hurt some transport sectors more than others. With fewer homes being sold, there's less demand for moving company drivers. With fewer offices and homes being built, there's less demand for cement and dump truck drivers and all the goods and materials that go into them. Many of those drivers have switched to more stable markets, such as food and beverage distribution.

"Connecticut is probably not as strong a market as some parts of the country," says Reilly, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut.

"There is very little construction going on. There is very little churn in the real estate market. As the economy improves, more freight will be shipped, and more drivers will be needed. There is no shortage yet for drivers in Connecticut, but there will be," Reilly said.

When that day comes — and for some long-haul companies it's already here — employers will find many of the drivers they need at regional driving schools. The laws of economics say that day will also result in greater compensation, as recently seen sign-up bonuses and incentive plans would indicate.

According to the Department of Labor, employment of tractor-trailer truck drivers is projected to grow 21 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average of all occupations.

While GPS technology and better routing can make trucking somewhat more productive, the industry seems a long way from finding breakthrough productivity gains that will lessen the need for more drivers.

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