Driver shortage becoming significant issue for trucking industry

As Thomas Bartley jostled the gear shift inside the cabin of the tractor-trailer, Davis Hamilton advised him to use a little more finesse.

Bartley was taking a one-on-one class from Hamilton, a trucking driving instructor at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks. The two spent part of Tuesday morning driving in circles of an empty part of Northland's parking lot.

"The double-clutching is something I've never done," Bartley said.

Trucking companies are hoping to see more students like Bartley enter the workforce to help fill a nationwide shortage of drivers, a problem that's only exacerbated by a growing demand for freight shipments as the economy slowly improves.

"There's demand nationally for (drivers)," said Arthur Bakken, CEO of Pro Transport and Leasing in Grand Forks. "A lot of it is because the driver age is getting higher and new entries are getting lower."

Shortage

There are about 30,000 truck-driving jobs available today, according to the American Trucking Associations. While private drivers for companies such as Wal-Mart and Target are a part of that, the biggest demand is in the for-hire market, or companies that aren't hauling their own freight, according to ATA Economist Rod Suarez.

And by 2022, the shortage could grow to 239,000 drivers based on 2012 projections, another ATA study found. Meanwhile, the amount of goods drivers will carry is expected to grow by almost 25 percent in the next 10 years.

There were 228 openings for transportation and material moving jobs in July for the Grand Forks region, according to Job Service North Dakota. In the same month last year, there were 124 openings.

Still, a driver shortage has been apparent for about 15 years, according to Senta Brookshire, the director of safety and driver development at Britton Transport in Grand Forks.

"Britton Transport is continually growing and expanding both in and outside of this region, so we do not see a time in the near future where we would not accept a good quality professional driver to be part of our team," she wrote in an email.

Brookshire added that there is competition from the western part of North Dakota, but it has eased somewhat in the past few years.

Aging fleet

A major reason for the shortfall has to do with aging drivers and the need to replace them, Suarez said. The median age of truck drivers in 2011 was 47, according to the ATA.

Suarez said there are a number of obstacles to getting new drivers behind the wheel, including the fact that someone can't drive a commercial vehicle across state lines until they are 21 years old.

"We lose a lot of potential drivers to the military and other things," Suarez said. "Why are you going to wait three years to start your career if you're fresh out of high school?"

He said there's also been a "cultural shift" where more people are unwilling to spend long periods of time away from home. Brookshire added that the "industry's image needs a makeover" to help attract younger generations to the job.

"Even the term 'truck driver' is void of the allure of career or professionalism," she wrote in an email. "It should be made known that professional drivers are very trained and skilled individuals who care about their work and can make good money doing it."

A new tractor-trailer driver can expect to make between $38,000 to $43,000 a year, and most companies are offering benefit plans, according to the ATA.

Closing the gap

To attract new drivers, some companies are reimbursing the costs of getting a commercial drivers license and reopening in-house driving schools.

"A lot of carriers didn't want to have to absorb that cost again, but they're facing no choice at this point," Suarez said.

Northland previously had a truck-driving program before it closed about 15 years ago, Hamilton said. But local companies in need of drivers approached the school, and in 2009 it reopened.

Still, there have been semesters where enrollment was too low to offer the class. Hamilton said the industry and instructors like him need to focus on being more proactive in filling the shortage of drivers.

"We need to see what we can do and how we can partner up with one another to end up in a win-win situation," he said.

Number of trucking jobs available across the country: 30,000

Expected total truck tonnage increase by 2024: 25 percent

Median age of drivers in 2011: 47

Grand Forks Herald

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