Driver recruitment a growing challenge for industry
Finding qualified drivers is among the most pressing concerns facing the trucking industry, outweighing critical operational factors such as cost of diesel fuel and the industry’s rapidly graying workforce.
Driver shortage has caused ITS Logistics to turn away large amounts of business, owner Jeff Lynch says. Sparks-based ITS employs about 135 drivers and contracts with another 20 owner/operators from its Sparks headquarters. Its workforce is about 15 to 20 percent short and can’t implement new business quickly enough as a result.
“It is the No. 1 issue we face as a company and as an industry,” Lynch says. “We always like to have that critical number to get today’s business done, and we have the ability to grow much further if we had the driver base. We can get trucks, equipment and business, but getting the drivers is the biggest issue.
“We have turned down millions of dollars of business because we can’t implement business quick enough due to lack of available drivers.”
American Trucking Association Chief Economist Bob Costello has estimated nationwide driver shortage could exceed 200,000 drivers by 2022 as the economy grows.
As lack of qualified drivers continues to pressure regional trucking companies, they’ve become creative in their recruitment and retention efforts.
Driver shortages first cropped up during 2004 through 2006 as the national economy rocketed skyward. During the recession, however, shortage of available drivers declined as a problem as freight volume declined. With fewer trucks on the road, some drivers switched careers. Now that the worst of the recession is past, transportation companies are feeling the pinch.
“In the last two years it has gotten much worse,” Lynch says. “It is a real challenge for our industry when we look at growth percentage — we have substantial growth ahead of us and will outperform traditional GDP growth. We will need more and more drivers coming into the industry.”
Sparks is the toughest market to find new drivers in the many areas ITS Logistics does business, Lynch says. As a result, ITS has developed a multi-pronged approach to find and lure new drivers to the company.
ITS has begun hiring out of the area and now has drivers based in Las Vegas, Phoenix, California, Seattle, Dallas and other parts of the country. It taps Craigslist, online advertising and job-search Web sites to find candidates for employment.
Signing and referral bonuses also have proven effective. ITS offers signing bonuses ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the market and what type of new business the company seeks to implement. Drivers who work as teams receive signing bonuses between $3,500 and $5,000. The company employs about 15 driver teams.
It also started a training program in which the company pays for a driver’s education to get a commercial drivers license. During a six- to 12-week over-the-road training program for new drivers, ITS pays well above industry averages for training miles and offers accelerated pay above industry standards once drivers complete mandatory training, Lynch says.
Lastly, a referral program where current drivers and employees can nab a $750 bonus for referring a new driver has also proven successful, Lynch says.
Bennie Gamble, vice president of Nevada for Devine Intermodal, a West Sacramento-based transportation firm that provides drayage service to and from the Port of Oakland, says having a fleet of brand-new big rigs also helps with recruitment efforts. Devine Intermodal purchased 10 new tractors for its northern Nevada operations, and it’s taken nearly five months to find that many new drivers.
“Offering drivers the ability to go into new equipment, that is pretty appealing,” Gamble says.
Devine Intermodal employs 15 drivers based in northern Nevada, but many of its California-based “hill runners” make the run over the Sierra Nevada from the Port of Oakland. The company operates out of a 30,000-square-foot facility in Sparks.
Gamble says employment ads on Craigslist have helped fill in new operators. So have word of mouth and the company-branded trucks rolling along Interstate 80.
“Our vehicles are rolling billboards,” he says. “We have drivers talk to other drivers at truck stops, but when we run over the hill and pass people, they know who we are.”
Several factors compound companies’ search for new operators. Devine Intermodal, for instance, prefers to hire drivers with a minimum of two years of accident-free experience. Drivers wishing to enter the Port of Oakland also must have a valid Transportation Worker Identification Card to gain access into the port.
“It is another level of background check that is more than what was required 10 years ago,” Gamble says. “What we are seeing in Reno is drivers that are applying here don’t have TWIC card, and that is just one more step they have to go through to work here.”
The issue of driver shortage is further complicated by a rapidly aging workforce and lack of younger recruits to step in and take the wheel. The average driver age is nearly 60 years old, Lynch says, and it keeps climbing.
The trucking industry is unable to pull fresh faces out of high school, however. Depending on where they are located, drivers can’t operate a semi truck until they are between the ages of 21 and 23 — years where a majority of young candidates gravitate toward other professions, Lynch says.
“On the front end we are not able to recruit drivers (ages) 18, 19 and 20, those people who choose not to go to college and choose a trade. We lose them between 18 and 23, and we have to have that channel to bring new recruits into this industry.”
For many young recruits, the rigors of life on the road prove unappealing despite high entry wages. ITS focuses on regional business, Lynch says, and the company’s drivers typically are home two to three nights a week. Many drivers are home every night — one of the company’s strongest retention strategies.
ITS often splits routes in order to keep get drivers back home. Drivers transporting goods from Reno to Los Angeles or the reverse often meet at Bishop or Independence on the Eastern Sierra and swap trailers so they can make it back home and be with their families.
ITS does the same with drivers logging miles between Southern California and Arizona.
“Even if it’s only two to 10 hours, and least they can shower and see their families,” Lynch says.
The rate effective Jan. 1, 2020, is 1.65 percent of wages paid to employees. That is two-tenths of a percent lower than the current rate, giving a significant break to businesses that pay the tax.