The Trucker Chronicles

By John Perney | Special to the Kalamazoo G…

May 16, 2010, 6:00AM

KALAMAZOO — To hear those in the industry tell it, opportunities right now for someone interested in becoming a truck driver are as wide open as a four-lane highway at 3 a.m.

They say demand for drivers is rising sharply — the renewal of a long-term trend — after many trucking companies shed bodies or went out of business completely the last couple of years due to the deep recession and credit crisis.

Five years ago, with the economy chugging, an American Trucking Associations study concluded that a shortage of 20,000 long-haul drivers then could grow to as high as 111,000 by 2014.

The loss of 72,000 drivers industry-wide in 2008 tempered that projection, but it appears to be a different story today.

“I could hire 50 people in Kalamazoo next week for intermodal positions in Chicago,” said Mike Hinz, vice president of driver recruiting at Schneider National in Green Bay, Wis. “As freight comes back, (the need) becomes more acute.”

Intermodal refers to the multiple ways that freight is transported, in this case via rail and trucking. Hinz was referring to adding jobs at the Chicago Rail Yards, where freight containers go directly from trains to trucks.

As the economic recovery starts to gather steam there is an accompanying increase in freight for Schneider, Swift, J.B. Hunt and other trucking companies large and small, and that means a need for more people to haul products, components and other things.

It also means a couple of factors that push demand for drivers are once again along for the ride: demographics and the sometimes difficult working life of a truck driver, especially a new one.

“You’re away from home multiple times for a week or more, and that makes for a difficult job,” said Walt Heinritzi, executive director of the Lansing-based Michigan Trucking Association. “Interfacing with traffic for 11 hours a day, the demands of shippers, loading, unloading … in my view, I think you really have to like it, otherwise you’re not gonna stick with it.”

Long-haul, or over-the-road, truckers typically are paid by the mile, and drivers switching companies for a few cents more is common and often leads to turnover rates of 100 percent or higher.

“There’s more of a loyalty to the profession of being an intermodal driver than being tied to a company name,” said Jessica McGarrow, group president, research and professional recruitment at WSI, a staffing firm in Kalamazoo that recently retained Schneider as a client.

“Just as important as attracting the drivers is the retention program once they’re brought on.”
Age adds to the complex numbers game. More than three out of four drivers in the 2005 ATA study were 35 or older, and nearly half were 45 and older. With the first baby boomers turning 65 next year, the issue will persist for some time. That’s good news for someone eager to get a commercial driver’s license, climb into the cab and hit the road in a new career. But it isn’t quite that simple, Heinritzi says.

“Oftentimes, it’s not a lack of people, it’s a lack of quality people,” he said. “Are they qualified? Are they drug-free? Are they safety-conscious, and can they make rational decisions? Can they actually drive the truck?”

Back-to-school time
International Trucking School, and others like it, do their best to satisfactorily answer those questions. Canton-based ITS, a 20-year-old Michigan-only operation with six locations including Kalamazoo, offers a four-week, five-day-a-week Basic Truck Driver course for $4,995, which results in a commercial license, or CDL, and the likelihood of a job upon completion.

“Companies give prehires, meaning if they pass the course they’ll have a job,” said Chad Slane, who drove for 16 years before becoming lead instructor at ITS in Kalamazoo two years ago. “But we don’t sugarcoat it at all. We preach once you get a job, stick it out for at least a year. It’ll be worth their while.”

The sticking-it-out stems from the unsurprising fact that rookie drivers typically get the longer hauls, the longer time away from home — and are paid less to do it, usually in the range of 22 to 30 cents per mile, which amounts to pay of about $30,000 for the first year. And there’s a good reason for that.

“The insurance premiums for a greenhorn driver are astronomical,” said Rebecca Parsons, student advisor at ITS Kalamazoo. “But the larger carriers can afford the insurance premiums on a green driver.”

“Once you get in and get one year of experience, that’s your golden ticket,” Slane added. “The big thing is the insurance. These companies are taking a risk with a new driver.”

Five students were enrolled in an ITS class this month, including Joe Corral, 46, of Bangor, who formerly lived the cubicle life in shipping and receiving. Asked what led him to trucking, he said, “I like the idea you’re not in a four-by-four world. You get to watch the world go by. It’s not monotonous.”

Ron Morgan, 48, of Kalamazoo, was in property management and maintenance for 24 years.
“I was making pretty decent pay, but the pay has really dropped in the field,” he said, adding that a CDL “opens up a lot more doors for you. We’re more employable.”

Seeing who sticks
It’s a two-way street, as truck companies need to improve their chances at finding good drivers.

“A lot of fleets got rid of their recruiting departments (during the recession),” said ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello. “Now, almost everybody I’m talking to is ramping that back up quickly.”

But with that, says McGarrow, the WSI recruiter, comes the need for an innovative approach.

“Recruiters who have worked in this industry go for volume typically,” she said. “They find as many as they can, throw ’em on the wall and hope five or 10 stick. We’re being more strategic. We’re doing more research and headhunting on the front end.”

Identifying and targeting particular cohorts is one tactic. Rebecca Parsons at ITS says trucking would be a good choice for those just out of the armed forces. “Especially if they’ve been overseas for a long period of time, it’s a smooth transition,” she said.

ATA Vice President of Public Affairs Clayton Boyce said it would be an even more natural fit if the military trained recruits toward passing a CDL exam.

“We’ve been working with the Pentagon to align their training and requirements with the civilian sector,” Boyce said. “That way they can come right out of the military and begin to work in the trucking sector.”

Trucking is also a nice option for married couples, Boyce said, as husband and wife can become a driving team and take turns behind the wheel, which means faster deliveries, more miles and more money.

“We’ll put them in a truck and away they go,” said Hinz, of Schneider. “There are just so many different opportunities.”

Back at ITS, Slane and Parsons usually see that every month.

“A lot of guys change their lives when they do this,” Slane said. “Out of the factory, one more job before retirement. And what a way to do it — to get paid to see the country.”

“Every little boy sees the big truck,” Parsons said, “and it’s just something you don’t want to let go of.”

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