Attention out-of-work Americans: Want to be a trucker?
A worsening shortage of truck drivers is pushing up freight rates and delaying some deliveries, defying the weak economy, high unemployment and falling gasoline prices.
"It's getting harder to get drivers," says Mike Card, president of Combined Transport of Central Point, Ore., and incoming chairman of the American Trucking Associations. "I could hire 50 guys right now." He now employs 393 drivers.
Many Baby Boomers are retiring and fewer young people are interested in long-haul-trucking careers that often require drivers to be away from home for weeks at a time, says Ben Cubitt, senior vice president of Transplace, which manages freight delivery for businesses.
Despite the 8.2 percent national jobless rate, many unemployed construction and factory workers can't afford the $4,000 to $6,000 cost of a six-week driver-training course, says Rosalyn Wilson, senior business analyst of consulting firm Delcan.
In addition, she says, truck drivers must be at least 21, leading many 18-year-old high school graduates who might consider trucking to instead pursue plumbing or other trades.
Another barrier: The government began publicizing the safety ratings of trucking companies 18 months ago, prompting some carriers to hire only drivers with unblemished records and narrowing the pool of qualified applicants.
The annual driver turnover rate at large carriers rose to a four-year high of 90 percent in the first quarter from 75 percent a year ago, according to the trucking association. The turnover rate at small carriers jumped even more sharply in that period, to 71 percent from 50 percent.
The shortage has increased average driver salaries about 5 percent this year to $45,000 to $50,000, says Noel Perry, managing director at FTR Associates.
The crunch is expected to become even more dire next year when stricter federal limits on the number of hours drivers can work take effect. That safety move will force companies to hire more drivers.
Driver shortages are effectively limiting truck capacity and helping push up freight rates by 2 percent to 5 percent this year, despite the sluggish economy, says analyst Benjamin Hartford of research firm R.W. Baird. Also driving up rates are rising wages and truck prices that have increased as much as 40 percent the past few years because of modernized engines that must meet tougher emissions rules.
Card of Combined Transport says 10 percent of his deliveries are one or two days late because he doesn't have enough drivers.
This story first appeared in USA Today.