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America's truck driver shortage

America’s trucking industry’s been experiencing a chronic shortage of drivers for at least 20 years. Conservative estimates put the number of vacancies upward of 20,000, and some say it goes into the hundreds of thousands.

But, there are mixed views on the causes and solutions for this challenge to the industry.

Kevin Dugan has a college degree in heating and air conditioning, but after graduating he had a similar experience to many young grads. Employers were reluctant to hire him because of a lack of experience.

And that’s why Dugan’s out early each Saturday morning, taking a truck for a spin.

“Nobody wanted to give me a job, nobody really wanted to give me an interview. And that carried on for just so long, and I said ok, I need to find something else if I’m ever going anywhere with this,” he says.

“I heard there was an employment vacuum with transportation so I decided to go ahead and investigate that. So one thing led to another and here I am.”

Dugan’s lead turned out to be on the money. He had several job offers before he’d even completed his training, as did most of his classmates.

He’s one of a handful of new truck drivers entering the industry via the Professional Driver Institute (PDI) in western New York.

Paul Doyle, president of PDI, says his school trains up to 35 students per month. And, they could triple class sizes and still not meet the demand, he says

“People don’t realize how big of an industry this is. It’s the second largest employer next to healthcare. There’s something like 350 thousand motor carriers in the US. It’s usually a well-kept secret as far as the opportunities that are out there.”

As far as Doyle’s concerned, the shortage is a hangover from when trucking licenses became federally regulated in the early ‘90s.

He says that change eliminated around 40 percent of drivers from the industry because it revealed an astonishing lack of enforcement of driving violations and restrictions.

“The commercial license used to be regulated for each state. And one of the problems that developed was, drivers could what they call “spread out moving violations” over states. They could actually have 15-20 DWIs, they could have 50-60 moving violations. But they would spread them out over different states, so they would still be legal in any particular state.”

Doyle says the industry never really recovered, and they’re now facing a crisis as baby boomers begin to retire. He says companies also struggle with outdated perceptions of the industry.

“That is a very real issue. I think the trucking industry itself is trying to package itself to try to appeal to a more diversified market, including women, minorities…maybe people that typically, in the past, would not have considered it. They try to make it more and more driver-friendly, more technologically advanced, more user-friendly.”

A different take

Michale Belzer, associate professor of industrial relations and economics at Wayne State University, sees the problem differently.

For him, the driver shortage dates back to the decade before the license system went federal.

“I have been hearing about this driver shortage since the late 1980s, and there have been lots of complaints about that. You never heard about that before deregulation 30-35 years ago, there was no problem. But when the job became so highly competitive and highly pressured, and the compensation went down by about a third or more, more like even a half, then it became a much less attractive job.”

And Belzer says it’s not outdated views of the industry that’s causing the shortage.

“The problem is that the job is too demanding and the pay is not good enough, and even if you train people for this job, they don’t stay once they realize how difficult the job is.”

It depends on who you talk to as to what view you get on this issue. If you talk to people in the trucking industry you’ll hear, unsurprisingly, that over-regulation is to blame.

David Heller’s an industry representative and Rick Etinger, a recruiter for trucking company Warner Enterprises. Both say tighter regulation of working hours is alienating drivers.

“Drivers are basically looking at regulations and saying there’s just too much and they’re leaving the industry. Effectively what it’s creating is a driver shortage,” says Heller.

“You’re allowed to drive an 11 hour day, but after you’ve been on the clock for eight hours you must take a half hour break mandatory by federal law. So what that’s doing is cutting into the driver’s hours of being able to work and or drive,” says Etinger.

“It could be crippling for the industry, it could be crippling for the consumer because the less drivers, the less stuff’s going to get delivered. And who really takes the bulk of all that is consumers. You would end up having higher fuel costs because fuel trucks have to make deliveries, there’s a lot of ramifications I believe if this shortage is not taken care of.”

The dollars and cents of it all

There’s no easy answer, but a lot of it comes down to money. Back at Wayne State, Michael Belzer says there’s not enough going into drivers pockets to attract people.

“They could work two jobs in fast food full time and make better money and be home every day than what they’re doing now. So the job, the current status of the trucking industry job, does not fit with the rest of the U.S. labor market.”

The industry is also arguing for more federal dollars to go towards driver education, rather than enforcing regulations.

For wanna-be drivers, the dollars and cents of it all are a factor too.  

Despite the number of local offers Kevin Dugan got, he decided to shop around. And, he ended up offering to relocate for a company that had a higher pay grade and a more attractive career track.

“Someone from Schneider pulled up one day while I was out there and I decided to go ahead and ask her how it was because I was a little dissatisfied with the prospects I had right there. She had just about all the answers I was looking for; decent pay, expansion into tank truck work, nice-ish trucks, they care about safety, they care about their drivers.”

Dugan admits the lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but he’s looking forward to hitting the open road.

He’s happy with the long hauls, traveling for about a week before returning for the weekends.

“It means I never have a lack of things to do when I get back on the weekends, and hey, you’re literally getting to see the entire north east, can you really put a price on that?”

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail