Trucking Industry Pulls Out Stops
MILWAUKEE (AP) _ After seven years in management with his trucking company, Joe Roeske is back behind the wheel hauling freight, the job he started in 15 years ago.
He wasn’t demoted. Amid a nationwide trucker shortage, Roeske’s company, Grass Unlimited of Milwaukee, simply hasn’t been able to find anyone else to do the job.
``I’m driving again because I can’t get a driver,″ Roeske, a company vice president, said as he smoked a cigarette at a truck stop near Milwaukee.
The lure of life on the open road has lost some of its luster in a booming economy that creates plenty of well-paying, stay-at-home jobs. U.S. trucking industry officials estimate their hiring is running short by about 80,000 drivers a year.
Trucking firms have boosted wages and offered signing bonuses to new drivers, but the industry still has trouble keeping people at the wheel.
Grass Unlimited, which hauls supplies for its sister company Nature’s Nook Garden Centers, had to sell two of its three rigs because there was no one to drive them. Now Roeske is the company’s only driver.
The company has advertised in the local paper and gone to job seminars trying to recruit drivers.
``We’re paying $12 an hour plus expenses and we still can’t get a guy,″ Roeske said. ``There’s none to be had.″
Bill Rogers, director of the industry group American Trucking Associations Foundation, said the nomadic lifestyle makes it hard to attract new drivers.
``It takes a unique person that’s willing to be gone for long periods of time,″ Rogers said. The ideal drivers are ``guys who never want to go home,″ he said.
C.R. England Inc. of Salt Lake City decided to create a home away from home for its drivers in hopes of keeping them with the company. The firm built a $6.2 million truck stop in Salt Lake City where truckers and trainees can stay when they’re not on the road.
The complex includes a dormitory, restaurant, grocery store, credit union, barber shop, movie theater and even a chiropractor _ a palatial setup for truckers used to sleeping in their cramped cabs.
The truck stop and other efforts have helped the company keep drivers.
Since the facility opened, the turnover rate among C.R. England drivers has dropped 10 percent, said Wayne Cederholm, senior vice president for administration.
``We had to be very aggressive in recruitment and in retention, and this facility is certainly one big effort in trying to keep drivers and in trying to keep them happy and satisfied,″ Cederholm said.
Another trucking company, Schneider National Inc. of Green Bay, Wis., which operates more than 14,000 tractors and 36,000 trailers, has taken to purchasing competitors just to get their drivers.
Last December, Schneider bought Highway Carrier Corp. of Des Moines, Iowa, adding 300 experienced drivers to its fleet. Schneider plans to buy at least one more company before the end of the year, said Bill Matheson, vice president of operations.
Schneider has been trying to recruit drivers at military bases, community colleges and job fairs, but with only limited success, Matheson said.
``When there’s an abundance of other jobs that allow you to be home more often and earn a good wage, it’s difficult to compete,″ Matheson said.
The dearth of drivers has some in the industry worried that driving schools may be churning out truckers who aren’t ready to handle an 18-wheeler.
``Schools are putting them out as fast as they can get them in there,″ said Tim Shelton, a driver with New Orleans-based H.L. Herrin.
J.B Hunt Transport Inc., based in Lowell, Ark., raised trucker salaries an average of 33 percent last year. Some raises were higher. For example, a driver with a year’s experience went from making 25 cents a mile to 37 cents a mile, a 48 percent increase.
The company also pledged to bring drivers home more often and do away with a waiting period for health insurance.
``We were having a tough time finding enough people to come to the schools, go through the schools and stay with us long enough to keep our trucks full,″ said Craig Harper, executive vice president of operations.
The higher wages and other employment changes have allowed the company to keep enough drivers on hand, Harper said.
One Chattanooga, Tenn., trucking company looks toward non-traditional recruits to fill its drivers’ seats. U.S. XPress Enterprises has been using couples to work long hauls for several years, said company spokesman John Ulczycki.
``Teams are critical to the kind of service we provide,″ Ulczycki said. ``If we did not have couples, we would have difficulty,″ filling slots, he said.
The company advertises for drivers in non-traditional places such as women’s magazines and outdoors publications. The company also gives presentations in grade schools to tell children about life on the road.
``We have to broaden the diversity or we’re not going to be able to find enough drivers to meet our growth needs,″ Ulczycki said.