dr marten style New Truck Drivers Thrive as Companies Struggle to Hire
Emily Duck is only 5 foot 4, but she has no trouble shifting the gears, hitting the brakes or climbing into the cab of a big rig that she drives from Edwardsville, Ill., to Kansas City almost every night.
The single mother of two has been hauling freight for three years, benefiting from a national trucker shortage that has companies scrambling to recruit drivers, offering competitive salaries and benefits and, in some cases, paying for their training.
“I went from being broke, making minimum wage and living paycheck to paycheck to getting a paycheck that was over $1,000 for one week after taxes,” said Duck, 28, of Belleville.
The job has its drawbacks. five days a week, taking time away from her two young daughters and limiting her social life. It’s hard to find healthy food along the interstate, she said, and you don’t get much exercise sitting in a truck.
But Duck owns a home and a nice vehicle, and she sleeps in her own bed, unlike “over the road” drivers who can be gone one, two or three weeks at a time.
“(My daughters) know from listening to other people how cool it is that their mom does this, but they don’t like my work hours,” she said. “They don’t like how much I work.”
Shortage expected to get worse
A study conducted last year by Bob Costello, chief economist for American Trucking Associations, estimated the driver shortage would reach 50,000 by the end of 2017 and 174,000 by 2026.
Costello cited several reasons, including a workforce that is aging and overwhelmingly male (only 6% are female); recruitment challenges related to the trucking lifestyle, which doesn’t appeal to everyone; and new regulations that limit shift lengths, requiring more drivers to haul the same amount of freight.
“It’s kind of the best kept secret in employment right now,” said Brett Reinert, associate vice president of strategic initiatives at Lewis and Clark Community College who oversees its truck driving program in Bethalto, Ill.
“As an occupation, it’s old, so there are a lot of retirees,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a growing industry, so you have new positions. There is work available for anyone who has a commercial driver’s license right now, assuming you don’t have a criminal record.”
Depending on the company, starting salaries range from $35,000 to $40,000 a year for route drivers who go home each night and more for regional or cross country, Reinert said.
RELATED: Truck driver shortage slows operations at world’s largest newsprint maker
RELATED: Analysis Is regulation driving the driver shortage?
Extra endorsements are needed to transport liquid or hazardous materials, which can create additional opportunities.
“Employers are falling all over themselves to hire students,” said Rene Dulle, Workforce Solutions Group program manager at St. Louis Community College who oversees its truck driving program on the Forest Park campus.
“We have eight employers who are going to visit the class (this month), and we only have five students,” she said. “It’s great. The students really get to shop around.”
Commercial driver’s license required
Truckers must be 21 years old and possess a Class A commercial driver’s license to take tractor trailers across state lines. The minimum age is 18 for a Class B license to drive heavy trucks with no trailers.
Illinois and Missouri require physical exams and drug testing, Dulle said, and most trucking companies want verifiable work histories and acceptable driving records.
“You can’t drive with certain heart conditions,” Reinert said. “It’s a safety issue. They want to make sure you are in good enough shape to sit behind the wheel and control the vehicle.”
Two community colleges and a few private schools in the St. Louis area have truck driving programs, which vary on the number of weeks, tuition and pass rates on licensing tests. Some guarantee job placement.
Lewis and Clark and St. Department of Labor grant to offset costs.
RELATED: ‘Crisis’ in Ohio’s trucking industry spurs flurry of bills
“We knew there was a huge demand for truck drivers before that,” Dulle said. “But between the equipment, the fuel and the maintenance, it was just too expensive to start a program.”
St. Louis Community College has a regular program and a new pilot apprenticeship program. The latter provides free tuition ($5,000) for five weeks of training to selected students who commit to working a minimum of 18 months for one of three partnering freight haulers.
Apprenticeships are funded by a federal grant administered by the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment and sponsored by St. Louis Regional Freightway, a branch of Bi State Development that assists the manufacturing, logistics and transportation industry.
“We want to increase the number of truck drivers and continue to have competitive trucking rates and be competitive in the global market,” said Mary Lamie, executive director of St. Louis Regional Freightway. “And we want to position ourselves to take advantage of the anticipated growth in freight volumes over the next three decades.”