Trucking industry needs drivers

More truck drivers are needed.

Even as the economy improves, companies are still working hard to bring in enough qualified, safe drivers to operate the country’s fleet of big rigs.

“Nationwide, there’s a huge driver shortage,” said Joey O’Brion, director of driver recruiting at Decker Truck Line Inc.

The veteran truck drivers are retiring, O’Brion said, and not enough new drivers are inbound.

Trucking magazines have been reporting on the problem, said Jeff Frank, director of the Iowa Central Community College transportation technology center.

“In the article, it was over 250,000 drivers short right now nationally,” Frank said.

As drivers approach retirement age, some are also discouraged by new changes in regulation, he said. Some believe the changes don’t make sense and don’t improve safety as intended.

“People who are tired of the regulations are getting out,” he said.

Some companies shut down their own driving schools and were more reluctant to hire students during the economic downturn three or four years ago, he said.

Now, however, that’s starting to change. In fact, some companies now will pay colleges to send drivers to them.

“We don’t do that. We’re a community college,” Frank said. “It’s important they go to a company that fits what they need, and that the person’s going to be happy there.”

This is important, because once companies find good drivers, they need to keep them. Nationwide, retention rates are a problem, O’Brion said.

“The national turnover rate is 102 percent. So if you bring in 10 drivers, you lose 10 drivers,” he said. “If the rate is over 100 it’s a step in the wrong direction.”

Decker has done a better job of this, he said.

“We maintain about a 60 percent turnover rate.”

Making sure drivers have good equipment and competitive pay also helps retention, O’Brion added.

That rate can be improved with adequate training, Frank said.

“That’s part of the industry turnover, in my opinion. They have to have the skills to do the job, and if they don’t – unfortunately, we don’t like it, and we quit,” he said.

ICCC has one of the longer trucking programs out there. Though the program was once 160 hours long, it is now 390 hours, taking about 11 weeks. This gives the students a better chance to be successful, he said, with more backing practice, more work with log books and more driving time overall.

“Students average 100 hours behind the wheel,” Frank said. “They average 1,500 to 2,000 miles. That’s pretty high.”

Decker hires about 60 students a year, O’Brion said.

Since 2012, Decker has also offered in-house securement training, which lets experienced drivers learn to load flatbed trailers.

“Maybe we had a driver who’s been driving for 20 years and wants to try flatbed,” he said. “Most companies would say no, you don’t have the experience, so you’ll have to go to a school; but we’ll take them.

“With a flatbed, you have to throw these tarps, park the load, put the straps on, tighten down the straps. These are 150-pound tarps. Imagine trying to fold up a thick canvas when it’s frozen solid, when it’s wet and rainy. It’s not always good conditions for a flatbed driver.”

Frank has been in the trucking business for 34 years and still drives on the weekends. It’s a good industry to join if you want job security, he said.

“I’ve never, ever had to worry about employment as long as I kept a clean driving record.”

But he knows it’s not for everyone.

“The lifestyle is hard. It’s not 9 to 5,” he said.

It’s a good match for some. Student Dave Rico joined the program after retiring from the post office.

“I told myself, how can I see the country and get paid to do it?” Rico said.

Rico is originally from Chicago, and said he did his research and discovered this was a very good school.

Gregory Brown said he’s in the program because trucking is a good career with good benefits.

“I wanted to travel, and see the countryside. And I like driving,” Brown said. “There’s good money in it, and I’m basically just doing what I love to do.”

“You get to travel, and meet good people,” said Dontrell Williams. “The whole trucking industry is a good thing, because it provides a lot of the people of our country.

“Everything we have was brought by a truck. You can think of us as the nation’s providers.”