CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The long-haul trucking industry wants to hire more drivers in the Charlotte area. But recruiters say they can’t find them.
Trucking companies are shipping more goods as factory output rises and the housing market rebounds. New federal rules limit the hours truckers can be on the road, prompting the industry to look for more drivers. And as the job market rebounds, some drivers who turned to trucking as a last resort are choosing jobs that keep them closer to home, said Mike Hinz, vice president of recruiting for the trucking firm Schneider National Inc.
Schneider is looking to hire 72 new drivers in Mecklenburg County, Hinz said – nearly four times as many as during the recession. Swift Transportation has posted 44 Charlotte-based long-haul truck driving openings in the last month. And truck driving schools in Charlotte say they’ve been contacted by the most recruiters since before the recession.
“Trucking is an easy way to get America back to work,” said Larry Hiott, an instructor at TransTech-Charlotte Diesel Driving School. “Companies are hiring more with the economy bubbling back up.”
Most in demand are the long-distance jobs, where a trucker might haul fully-loaded 40-ton rigs across the nation’s interstates for weeks at a time. That’s different from the coveted regional jobs – from Charlotte to Durham, for instance – that allow a driver to come home every night. Those mostly go to veteran drivers, Hiott said.
Industry experts say the hardships of life on the road are making it harder to recruit younger drivers. Long-haul trucking is plagued with a high turnover rate – 90 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 – and there’s a shortage of more than 25,000 drivers nationwide, according to the American Trucking Associations. As the trucking workforce ages, Charlotte-area firms are wondering how to attract a younger population to the open road.
Demand in Charlotte
“Trucking isn’t for everyone,” Mike Hinz said. He’s vice president of recruiting for Schneider National Inc., a Green Bay, Wis.-based trucking outfit that counts Charlotte among the top three of its 17 hubs. “With employment improving in general, people have more choices,” he said.
Schneider operates 50 to 80 trucks from its Charlotte hub, Hinz said, and wants to add more to keep up with a jump in demand that he attributes to a rise in manufacturing and home construction. Year-to-date single-family building permits are up 50 percent in Mecklenburg County compared to last year.
Larry Watson, owner of the Charlotte Truck Driver Training School on Hovis Road, said almost all of his 300-plus annual graduates can find a long-distance job. Hiring at the school came to a standstill in 2009, but now Watson says more than 100 area companies regularly contact him in search of fresh graduates.
Van Bridges, who recruits in the region for the smaller McElroy Truck Lines based in Cuba, Ala., says his firm had no recruiters before the recession. Now, it has three.
“I tell the students that it’s a steady profession with a steady income for those who can handle it,” Bridges said.
The average over-the-road driver earned a little more than $40,000 a year in the Charlotte area last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Bridges says that at 40 cents-a-mile, a savvy entry-level driver could earn even more.
Like many firms, McElroy entices truckers with signing bonuses and pays them for a three-week orientation. Some firms reimburse workers for training school – $3,000 to $6,000 for four to six weeks.
Industry officials hope such moves will ease the national shortage, which the American Trucking Associations estimate could balloon to nearly 239,000 drivers by 2022.
Trucking companies will have to generate nearly 100,000 new drivers a year to offset the deficit, the group estimates.
Life on the road
Long-distance trucking wasn’t Matt Emigh’s first choice. But he needed the income, and friends convinced him there would always be a need for truckers. So he entered the Charlotte Truck Driver Training School four weeks ago and after a few more hours of night driving he will take a test to earn his commercial driver’s license. He hopes to join the 90 percent of the school’s trainees that find work after graduation.
Emigh, 29, represents the youthful contingent recruiters hope to attract. He’s not crazy about the thought of being on the road for more than a week at a time, away from his wife and 1-year-old son.
“I’ve talked to my wife, and she doesn’t want to think about it,” he said. “But she understands what I have to do. Honestly, it sounds like hell to me.”
He hopes the $3,000 he spent on training will pay off. His goal: put in time on a long-distance job, then transition to local routes.
Recruiters are having a tough time replenishing an aging workforce. The average trucker was 48 years old in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and 21 percent of commercial truck drivers are 55 to 65 years old.
Bridges said finding millennials who can handle the lifestyle hasn’t been easy, and the days of the “gypsy trucker” might be long gone.
“You’re not home at night; you’re not living with your family,” Bridges said. “You’re kicked out of your comfort zone and by yourself.”
Regulation adds to shortage
New federal rules that began on July 1 will create an even greater need for truckers, industry experts say.
The new regulations reduce the maximum number of hours a driver can work per week from 82 to 70. They also prohibit truckers from driving for more than eight hours without a 30-minute break and limit them to no more than 11 hours of driving per day.
Violators face up to a $2,750 penalty per offense, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
For Schneider, the new rules mean a 3 percent to 5 percent decrease in miles per truck per day, Hinz said.
“It reduces what one single driver can do,” he said. He added that the firm will have to put more drivers on the road to make up for lost time.
McNally says the new rules will keep truckers stopped for longer, inducing a potential 4 percent decrease in productivity.
These new rules are in addition to the Compliance, Safety, Accountability Initiative put forth by the Department of Transportation in 2010. Bridges said many companies introduced wellness exams and put truckers through agility tests to comply with the rules.
He understands the emphasis on driver safety but says it puts a strain on recruiters already struggling to fill positions.
“We need more people committed to truck driving than ever,” he said. “And it’s hard to find.”