Valley companies gear up to fill truck driver shortage



A study predicted it, companies expected it and now it’s happening: A steep decline in people looking to become truck drivers is occurring nationwide, and it’s being felt in the Mahoning Valley.

The American Trucking Association and Global Insight say there’s a national shortage of more than 20,000 truck drivers. According to the study, the shortage is expected increase to 111,000 by 2014 as the baby boom drivers prepare to retire.

This statistic has trucking companies scrambling to find new drivers.

“We have such a demand right now. We have recruiters from many of the carriers looking around. They’re always in here,” said Jim Catheline, admissions director of the New Castle School of Trades in Pulaski, Pa.

Trucking companies and the ATA study are quick to point out that a truck driver shortage isn’t new, and it doesn’t affect all truck drivers.

According to the ATA, the economic boom of the late ’90s caused a shortage of long-haul drivers as companies struggled to keep them while giving them so much work. A 2000-01 recession put the shortage on delay only for it to return in 2004 with a strengthening economy.

Clayton Boyce, ATA vice president of public affairs, said the shortage is mainly for long-haul drivers, not truck drivers that get home every night.

Currently, Boyce said, the shortage has received short-term help.

“We are in a bit of a [freight] slump right now,” he said. “The decline is because of the slowdown in the economy. So it will provide a temporary effect to ease the shortage.”

Boyce said he expects the economy to bounce back and the shortage to return.

Because of rigorous tests, finding a good truck driver is difficult.

“They have to pass a series of written tests, hands-on test, ODOT [Ohio Department of Transportation] physicals, have decent-to-good driving records,” said Rick Rathburn, school director of TDDS Professional Training Center, in Lake Milton.

The reported average annual turnover of 121 percent for large truckload carriers also leaves little room for error including accidents, DUIs and drug screens.

The pressure of the job is something Don Constantini, president of Falcon Transport Co. in Austintown, said many new truck drivers can’t stand.

“Not everybody is cut out mentally for driving. Some people say, ‘Hey, this isn’t me. I can’t put up with it,’” he said.

To entice truckers, companies are realizing the importance of driver satisfaction.

A smaller company, Southwind Transport, in Youngstown, said it tries to make sure drivers get home so they can be happy while also being productive.

“We’re local, so most of our guys live around the area. We realize our drivers have families. We kind of work around everybody and they work around us,” safety director Kathy Sanders said.

“I think some of the companies have [changed] their routes. Instead of saying ‘Drive from here to Tennessee,’ they’ll say ‘Drive here to Detroit,’” said John Timmer, director of Human Resources for trucking company Nick Strimbu Inc., Sharon, Pa.

Overcoming the image of truck drivers being uneducated is tough, Rathburn said.

“Image is a big factor. People don’t want to be looked down on. We’ve really tried to change that as more of a business person type of attitude rather than the road cowboy,” he said.

The age requirement also is a problem. The minimum age for a truck driver is typically 23, making it hard to hire people as most of them already have jobs, Timmer said.

To get new drivers, companies are pulling out all the stops.

Constantini said his company has partnered with the Army by offering jobs to soldiers after their service is over.

Rathburn said he has resorted to reaching younger ages to interest them in the career.

“For me, it’s getting out and planting the seeds at middle schools and even elementary schools,” he said.

Recent interest from the unemployed, and from curious prospects, have Rathburn and Catheline hopeful.

“We have more and more inquiries about driving,” Catheline said. “Truck driving is relatively easy to learn. In six weeks time, you can be ready.”

“If you have a good driving record, one of our drivers could leave here with five job offers before they walk out the door,” Timmer said.

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