- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

CARLISLE, Pa. - When Mike Griffin graduates from Schneider National’s driver training center this summer and starts hauling cargo cross-country for a living, he will be lucky if he sees his girlfriend a few times each month.

Right now, though, the 21-year-old recruit from Eaton, N.Y., mostly has his eye on the job’s perks: a cool truck, no boss hanging over his shoulder and, most of all, “the cheapest, easiest way to see the country.”

Nobody is more eager for Mr. Griffin to fall in love with life on the road than Schneider National. As the economy recovers, large trucking companies such as Schneider are struggling to attract and retain enough drivers to keep up with demand from manufacturers and retailers.

Being away from home for long stretches at a time, driving 500 miles a day and battling traffic is lonely, stressful work. As a result, the industry has a high turnover rate. Limited wage growth since trucking was deregulated in 1979 has exacerbated the problem.

But trucking executives say they have had to work even harder lately as jobs with comparable pay packages open up in construction, agriculture and manufacturing. That means that companies need to lure new drivers and keep veterans from switching to careers that allow them to work closer to home.

“The big challenge we have is the lifestyle commitment that’s required of a trucker,” said Bill Matheson, vice president of truckload services at Schneider, based in Green Bay, Wis. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to fill the trucks right now.”

Executives at rival companies, such as J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and Swift Transportation Co., expressed similar concerns.

After reporting an 81 percent surge in second-quarter earnings, J.B. Hunt Chief Executive Kirk Thompson said profit margins would remain strong because of rising demand but that “growth … is at a virtual standstill until additional truck drivers are attracted.”

Swift, meanwhile, said it has put about 250 additional drivers into trucks since the year began, but its fleet of 16,000 still has more than 400 empty vehicles.

The industry’s labor troubles are most severe among truckload carriers, companies that dedicate entire trailers to one customer, haul goods over long distances and run irregular routes — meaning that drivers often have little idea where they are going from one week to the next.

Truckload executives lament that they also are losing some of their best and most experienced drivers to what are called less-than-truckload carriers, which consolidate freight from multiple customers and generally make the same short runs repeatedly.

In addition, less-than-truckload drivers typically make about 10 percent more per year, said Bob Costello, chief economist at the American Trucking Associations.

At the Flying J truck stop in Carlisle — just down the street from a hotel advertising an upcoming trucking-industry job fair — longtime hauler Ray McKinsey said one of the hardest adjustments rookie drivers have to make is dispensing with the fantasy that they are “going to have life easy.”

Mr. McKinsey, who is 54 and has driven a truck for more than 30 years, still contemplates other careers, especially when he is stuck in traffic jams for hours. But he knows that with regular weekends off, he has it better than many of his peers.

The pressures of long-haul trucking were too much for Christopher Biermaas of Linglestown, Pa., who quit his job at CR England Inc. of Salt Lake City in 2002 after about four months.

“Being out for four to five weeks at a time and then being home for two days … I just couldn’t do it,” said Mr. Biermaas, 24. “And it’s really expensive to live on the road. You’ve got to buy meals, you’ve got to buy showers.”

Today, he works for a local short-haul company, and he is much happier. He makes runs of several hundred miles a day, returns home most nights, and enjoys weekends and holidays off.

Part of the reason that the industry’s annual turnover rate is higher than 100 percent is that drivers switch companies, either for better pay or better routes, officials said, though many more simply leave the field entirely.

One sign that would-be drivers don’t know what they’re getting into: Out of about 30 recruits in Mr. Griffin’s training class at Schneider National, four dropped out less than one-third of the way through the six-week course. The majority are likely to leave the industry before next summer.

William F. Riley, senior executive vice president at Phoenix company Swift Transportation, said about one-quarter to one-third of the driving jobs in the industry turn over several times a year, while those who make it beyond the first six months tend to stick around.

High turnover “is a perennial problem,” Mr. Riley said. “But I would say the driver shortage has really gotten tighter over the last six months, and a lot of it is driven by the improvement in the economy.”

As a result, retention efforts are intensifying.

To make truckers happier, companies are trying everything from increasing the speed they can drive to allowing more “empty miles” so they can head toward home even if their trucks are empty and there is no freight moving in that direction.

With industrywide capacity tight, shipping rates are rising as much as 10 percent, allowing companies to pass along a portion of that to drivers.

Median pay for truckload drivers is about $45,000, although that figure is closer to $50,000 for less-than-truckload drivers. However, salaries can vary depending on experience, a driver’s safety record and the type of route he has.

Covenant Transport Inc. of Chattanooga, Tenn., has a 20-member division dedicated to retention — a difficult challenge for years but one that has become more urgent in recent months. For the first time in three years, Covenant has had to idle trucks — 5 percent of its fleet of 3,600 — for lack of drivers.

“The vast majority of it is we don’t pay them enough money,” said David Parker, Covenant’s president and chief executive, explaining why Covenant recently became one of several trucking companies to raise wages. “We’ve got to look at ways of getting them home faster and more often.”

To address the problems, Schneider National is offering $5,000 signing bonuses to experienced drivers, and the company is working to improve drivers’ routes “so there’s more predictability, more solid time at home,” Mr. Matheson said.

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