September 25, 2017

Driver shortage forces haulers to lift pay, perks to woo workers

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
John Pruchnicki, owner of Coastal Carriers of Connecticut.
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
John Pruchnicki, owner of Coastal Carriers of Connecticut, with an electronic log book that federal rules require be installed in eligible commercial vehicles, starting in October. The trucking industry says the time and expense to equip trucks with the device, plus download and catalog the data, is an example of the state and federal rules burdening drivers and truck operators.
Photo | Contributed
A bus simulator that New Britain commercial livery operator Dattco Inc. uses to train new motor-coach drivers.
Photo | Pablo Robles
Middletown truck hauling company Bailey’s Express helps move goods across a three-state footprint in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

By the Numbers: CT's Trucking Industry

57,760 The number of jobs provided by the

state's trucking industry in 2015.

$3 billion Total trucking industry wages paid in

Connecticut in 2015.

$51,878 The average annual salary for truckers

in Connecticut in 2015.

Source: CT DOL

Ansonia trucking-company operator John Pruchnicki uses nearly every tool in his kit to recruit and retain some of Connecticut's 57,000 or so commercially licensed truck drivers to his payroll.

Many of the semis in Pruchnicki's Coastal Carriers of Connecticut fleet are equipped with the same safety features and ergonomics found in today's cars — automatic transmissions, power steering, stability and adaptive cruise controls, and anti-lock brakes. His drivers also collect good pay, benefits, even performance incentives, as well as the opportunity to finish their workday and sleep in their own beds — something coveted among haulers forced to drive nights and weekends.

Yet, despite relatively good pay and working conditions, finding and keeping truck drivers is back to being as difficult as it has ever been, Pruchnicki and other truck-industry observers say. Tightened state and federal compliance obligations on trucking companies and drivers, plus increased competition in a revived economy for talent and consumers' mounting appetites for speedy delivery of goods ordered online, have exacerbated the trend. Trucker demographics, too, are a factor.

"The truck-driver shortage is real,'' said Joe Sculley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut (MTAC). "Trucking companies just cannot find candidates.''

Ask any trucking-company operator or driver-training school, and they'll tell you that, even with 3.5 million licensed truckers on U.S. roads, drivers always are in short supply. But the intensity of the shortage oscillates, particularly in tune with the economy, said Robert Costello, economist with the American Trucking Associations (ATA), to which MTAC belongs.

Currently the shortages appear to be the worst ever, experts say.

"We're short about 50,000 drivers today,'' Costello said, mostly for long-haul, interstate routes that keep them on the road for days, weeks at a time.

The economic impact of a truck-driver shortage is hard to estimate, Costello said, because transportation costs, including drivers' pay, are a tiny part of the wholesale-retail pricing of goods. However, the shortage may eventually play out in longer delivery times to homes, factories and store shelves, he said. About two out of every three tons of U.S. freight moves by truck on America's roads, ATA says.

An acute truck-driver shortage existed up until the start of the Great Recession in late 2008, which helped offset a then truck-driver shortage of some 20,000, according to a 2015 ATA report.

By the time the national recovery began in 2011, the deficit was rising again, to around 38,000, ATA said. An uptick in freight-hauling volume in 2014 shrank the driver deficit, but it re-emerged again in 2015, reaching 48,000 at the end of that year, and continues to grow, Costello said.

It's not just truckers either. Dattco Inc. in New Britain, one of New England's largest people movers with a fleet of school buses, motor coaches, limousines and livery vehicles, is also seeing a driver shortage. Many of its drivers require a commercial license, similar to truck haulers.

Currently, Dattco is training some 100 people to take the state's commercial driver's license, or CDL, exam.

"The whole bus industry is experiencing the same issue,'' said Dattco President Don DeVivo.

MTAC's Sculley says the aging of America's trucker corps is a problem, with the average age of truckers around 49. The problem is even more acute when you consider the median "mortality'' age for drivers who either retire or die is 61. That means skilled, veteran drivers are disappearing faster than they can be replaced. Mandatory drug tests for new drivers, and random sampling of veterans, regularly thins their ranks, truckers say.

Moreover, many veteran drivers who have spent years driving long-haul, cross-country routes have grown weary of being away from home and family for extended periods. Also, a mass of new federal rules in the last decade mandating drivers limit — as well as log — time at the wheel frustrates older haulers, causing them to burn out or retire, driving instructors and other trucking experts say.

Others have shed their long-haul routes and now drive for courier services and distributors offering shorter, one-day routes, where they can leave home in the morning, do their runs, then return home that night.

Known in the industry as "last-mile delivery,'' experts say large logistics operators that warehouse and distribute products for grocers, merchandise retailers and other third parties are stepping up and buying small trucking lines to handle those quick deliveries. That expands opportunities and options for drivers.

"People want more home time," Pruchnicki said. "They want more family time. The money doesn't seem to be the catchall anymore.''

And the pay is good. According to the state Department of Labor wage data, Connecticut truckers with a commercial driver's license earn from a median $12 an hour for least seasoned drivers to a median $23 an hour for more experience. New, inexperienced Coastal drivers start at $24 an hour; more experienced drivers earn up to $80,000 a year, Pruchnicki said.

Another contributor to the shortage, Costello said, is a federal rule banning drivers younger than 21 from driving big rigs between states. That rule, he said, is outdated considering many 18 year olds who don't attend college are immediately searching for a job to earn a living.

"They just can't sit around and wait until they're 21 to get a job,'' he said.

Recruitment efforts

Somers' New England Tractor Trailer School, which has tutored truck drivers since 1965, has about 500 pupils enrolled there and at its Bridgeport satellite campus, about the same count as a year ago, said Mark Greenberg, the school's second-generation owner and a third-generation trucker.

His student-drivers average 24- to 36 years old, an indication that Millennials are recognizing the job and career opportunities in the field, Greenberg said. He said he's uncertain whether he's training enough new drivers to fill the void.

"When's enough enough? … We see older workers coming out of industries that aren't paying enough,'' Greenberg said, citing retail, light construction and food services. "We see people who are working but have no trained skills.''

Pruchnicki, who chair's the MTAC board, said he and a partner started Coastal Carriers to haul gasoline, heating and liquid hazardous waste. He said he could take on more business today if he knew he could comfortably hire five new drivers, but that's a challenge.

To entice new talent, Pruchnicki said he has invested in newer trucks with computer-controlled gearboxes to replace 10-speed, stick-shift transmissions.

Coastal also offers its 50 nonunion drivers, whose average age is the mid-40s, floating holidays and quarterly incentive bonuses, up to $500, for keeping semis clean and accident free, and being up to date on mandated hourly/mileage logs and other paperwork, he said. After six months, new drivers get a travel bag embossed with Coastal's logo.

"It's a cheap way to say 'thank you'," said Pruchnicki. "You have to do those things to get people to come into the industry.''

Dattco's DeVivo says part of the hiring/retention solution lies in creating a better work environment and showing drivers they are appreciated. That means upgrading truck/bus fleets with newer, modern vehicles, along with better pay, benefits and perks.

"They have to want to come to work for you,'' DeVivo said.

License bottleneck

Trucking has embraced internet technology, such as YouTube and webinars, to train drivers, observers say. But modern training tools cannot overcome the licensing bottleneck in Connecticut for a Class A (heavy truck) or Class B (box truck) commercial driver's license, or CDL, observers say.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles confirms its corps of CDL driving inspectors each handle five to six, behind-the-wheel tests a day. Each test takes about 90 minutes, due to all the state and federal requirements that must be observed in testing, a DMV spokesman said.

DMV has taken steps to shorten the testing wait time, which Greenberg of the New England Tractor Trailer School says now extends to 30 days.

"We do testing during the week at 30 companies statewide and on weekends at 21 companies that are willing to pay for all expenses involved with bringing in a DMV employee to administer the test,'' DMV spokesman William Seymour said via email. "This is designed to help companies expedite the process of putting qualified drivers on the road."

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