David McCarty is 55 years old and a former six-figure VP in a telecommunications corporation. For the last several months, however, his office has been the cab of an 18-wheeler, where six days of the week he hauls hazardous chemicals across the U.S.
Drivers Wanted – Desperately
The work keeps McCarty apart from his longtime wife, now ill with rheumatoid arthritis. “I don’t love truck driving,” he says candidly, but just the same he’s glad to have the work. Unable to get hired as an executive, McCarty found he was over-qualified for lesser positions, even as a service rep with his old company!
Driving home one day after a long day as a commission-only salesman, he saw a truck with enticing words on the side: “Drivers Wanted.” McCarty knew nothing about trucking but the prospect of a regular paycheck was all the motivation he needed to learn.
Truck drivers are in demand all over the U.S. these days. A few years ago, many freight companies would have turned down an older driver fresh out of truck school. For recruiters, those were the good old days. Now they’re prepared to look more closely at applicants who bring a clean safety record, serious work ethic and good attitude, even if they’re short on experience.
Resetting the Experience Bar
“We require at least six months of on-the-road experience,” said Karen Anderson of Texas Star Express in a recent interview with EveryTruckJob. Anderson is head of the recruiting department for Texas Star, a 300 vehicle operation that hires O-Os, lease operators and company drivers. Only five years ago, few long haulers would have set the experience bar as low as six months, but the company’s policy is a typical response to trucking’s dearth of qualified drivers.
In fact, these days six months is more the norm than not. A quick, non-scientific survey of thirty companies with postings on a prominent job board found just three that required a full year of experience, several that required only three months and a number who didn’t stipulate experience.
Anderson goes on to explain that Texas Star requires any new hire with minimal experience to take a company driving program. Compared to most of the industry, her company has a low turnover rate. She asked for the turnover rate to not be disclosed, but we can verify that it is much lower than the industry average.
Not Hiring a Termination Statistic
For Anderson, experience is only one of the factors that determine an applicant’s hiring suitability. “We hire to grow. We want drivers who will be with us for a long time and we do our best to make sure we’re not hiring a termination statistic.”
A chief qualifying factor is what the driver is looking for and whether that fits an opening in the company. “If you only want to do regional work, we have those positions. If you own your own tractor, we have a place for you.” Texas Star’s 300 vehicles ensures that there are always openings. “We keep our turnover low but there are always drivers coming and going.”
Turnover Rate of–Yikes!–89%
Trucking has always had high driver turnover, but in years past that mattered less because there was a large pool of available drivers. That’s no longer true. Even though general unemployment doggedly remains at 8.3%, the trucking industry experienced a phenomenal turnover of 89% in the third quarter of 2011. Other quarters in 2011 and 2010 were similar.
Richard Stocking, COO of trucking giant Swift Transportation, predicts recruiting and retaining workers will be the “number one” issue for the industry in the immediate future. “It’s kind of weird to have a driver shortage when millions of people are out of work, but that’s the situation we face.”
There are a variety of factors responsible for this dilemma. One is the spate of new federal regulations that drivers find burdensome and reduces the pool of applicants. Another is the rebound of the construction industry, which provides an attractive alternative to trucking (although trucking typically offers higher financial incentives). Thom Albrecht, an analyst at the Richmond-based BB&T Capital Markets, observes that many workers who obtain a commercial driver’s license for a trucking job are then able to find work driving a dump truck or cement truck for a construction company.
Where Have All the Drivers Gone?
Karen Anderson finds irony in the present situation. “A lot of drivers were forced out during the recession. Companies downsized and parked their trucks. They didn’t need drivers. Lots of people left. Now companies have capacity and they expected the drivers to return. Some did, but many didn’t.”
Historically, the trucking industry has had a large labor pool for its drivers. The recovery has seen a reversal of that situation. Whether it is the “new norm” remains to be seen.
However, for out-of-work Boomers like David McCarty, the situation represents an opportunity that most Americans experience when out-of-work: re-invention. Trucking has always been a last resort for people looking to turn the page, a bridge between one form of livelihood and the next. One way or another, the goods in the U.S. economic machine have to move and people will be found to move them. One way or another, people will figure out a way to make ends meet. Sometimes the two coincide.
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