Yarbrough Transfer Company

Trucking firms seek to fill driver shortage

As seen in The Greater Triad Business Journal - August, 2012 | 800-334-0160

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Trucking firms seek to fill driver shortage

(As seen in The Greater Triad Business Journal - August, 2012)

The Hoping to alleviate a chronic shortage of drivers, Triad trucking companies are shifting recruitment efforts into high gear with several initiatives that include enhanced benefits and updated job websites that make it easier — and faster — for candidates to apply.

The difficulty associated with finding qualified drivers has been an ongoing issue in the Triad since at least the late 1990s, but experts say the problem has worsened in recent years.

New federal safety regulations have made it tougher to find candidates with sterling driving records, while trucking firms also face the loss of older employees and a mindset among younger, family-oriented candidates who don’t want a lifestyle of long hours on the road.

The problem is not unique to the Triad. Nationally, trucking companies are facing a shortage of about 20,000 drivers, but that number could rise as the economy improves, said Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations in Arlington, Va.

Experts say that if companies are unable to fill their driver pipelines long-term, the problem could have far-reaching implications in the Triad, which is home to some of the biggest names in truck-hauling including Greensboro-based Epes Transport and Kernersville-based Best Cartage.

Ultimately, the problem could also impact major truck manufacturers such as Mack Trucks and Volvo Trucks North America that call Greensboro home.

Melissa Davis, director of recruiting at Greensboro-based Epes Transport, said her company has about 900 drivers and about 10 open driver positions, but the number of openings is constantly changing due to the industry’s traditionally high turnover rate. With that in mind, it’s important to be proactive in finding new, qualified workers now.

“The industry standard is 70 to 80 percent (turnover). We are at 30 percent right now,” Davis said. “You are constantly having to fill those positions that people are leaving or retiring from. The baby boomers are going to be retiring out in the next few years.”

Enhancing benefits

To combat the problem, Epes is continuing a billboard campaign started last year to advertise for qualified drivers, enhancing driver training programs and updating its website with a page where drivers can apply for a job on their smartphone. Epes also is enhancing its driver referral programs and using social media to attract new employees.

Yarbrough Transfer Co. in Winston-Salem needs to fill five open driver positions needed to fill demand, and executive vice president David Yarbrough said the company has extended employee vacation time from five days to eight days to lure new candidates.

Yarbrough said truck drivers have traditionally been job-hoppers who are looking for better pay and more time at home.

“This is not a problem that’s that much different than other industries, but it’s exacerbated in the trucking industry because truckers are away so much,” Yarbrough said.

The ability to attract new workers has also become more difficult because members of the younger generation are more family-oriented.

“A lot of truckers are away six to eight weeks at a time,” Yarbrough said. “If you have a family, that can be really tough.”

The perception of trucking driving as a career has also changed since the 1970s and 1980s.

“There was a certain level of professionalism and honor in being a trucker,” Yarbrough said. “With the passage of time and a little bit of a culture change, that sort of mystique isn’t really there anymore.”

Surry County-based Hardy Brothers Inc. has about 120 drivers and is considering four more potential candidates. To make the job more attractive to today’s workers, the company decided to provide up to a 5 percent match on 401(k) plans, said Dale Norman, director of sales and marketing. The response has been “tremendous,” so far, he said.

“I don’t want to say that we have 100 percent participation, but it has made a difference with new hires,” Norman said.

Norman said his challenge is finding drivers who are qualified under the new federal safety rules.

“A few weeks ago, we had five trucks empty,” he said. “We probably had to look at 25 to 30 drivers to fill those positions. There are just not a lot of candidates that we can work with.”

To snap up the best drivers now,

Kernersville-based Best Cartage, which has about 300 drivers and between 10 to 12 open positions, is in the process of redesigning its website with a dedicated page for hiring drivers. The hope is that a dedicated page will help Best Cartage speed up the process of hiring qualified driving candidates, said Richard Hepler, the company’s manager of human resources and safety.

“If we get an application online and don’t process it in a couple of days that person has already moved on to someone else,” Hepler said. “Drivers really are shopping around, and they are looking for the best bang for their buck.”

Triad companies are exploring ways to attract new workers at a time when demand has increased. According to the ATA, truck tonnage increased 1.2 percent in June after falling 1 percent in May.

“It’s slowing down, but it’s still growing on a year-over-year basis,” said Costello of the ATA. “It’s still up from where we were in the depths of the recession.”

If local companies are unable to refresh their work forces with new drivers, trucking companies may be forced to increase driver pay and raise freight rates.

“This is a low-profit industry,” Costello said. “Driver expenses are the No. 1 expense. If that goes up, they can’t absorb all of those costs.”

Long road to work

It may seem ironic that some trucking companies are struggling to find new workers in a region where unemployment remains at about 10 percent. But Costello said it’s not as simple as that. To become a truck driver, a candidate first needs to obtain a commercial driver’s license. And drivers must be at least 21 years old, “which means we miss a lot of people who might go toward other industries when they are 18 to 21,” Costello said.

Becoming a truck driver also means making a lifestyle choice that at first could mean weeks on the road before returning home. Although truck driving is one of the few jobs that doesn’t require a college education but can pay a starting salary in the low $40,000s, “it’s not for everybody,” Costello said.

But not all companies are sweating the driver shortage.

David Congdon, president and CEO of Thomasville-based Old Dominion Freight Line, where drivers can make north of $60,000 by age 23, said the company has been successful recruiting and retaining drivers thanks to its in-house driving school. More than 3,000 drivers have been through the school since 1988.

“We have very good success with that,” Congdon said. “That is our best weapon against the driver shortage.”