By Jeff Kearns
— Robert Boyd quit his job as a bank assistant branch manager to start truck-driving school in September. He graduated in December and landed work behind the wheel of a rig at twice the pay.
Boyd saw opportunities in driving school ads on television, articles in the paper and trucks filling the roads. He contacted recruiters and enrolled at the Western Area Career & Technology Center, about 25 miles from his Pittsburgh, Penn., home. Demand for its graduates has climbed amid a national driver shortage and a local shale-gas drilling boom that are both boosting competition for drivers.
"Trucks are everywhere, especially on the main highways around here," Boyd said after earning the Class A commercial driver's license that helped him become an equipment operator for an energy company. "I'm 38 and this is it for me. This is how I'm going to retire."
Boyd is riding a wave of job growth at trucking companies as they post payroll increases at more than double the pace of the nation's work force since the end of 2010. Demand is being driven by the economic expansion, new regulations that cap driver hours and rising turnover caused by long days and time away from home.
The job-placement rate for the school in Canonsburg, Penn., has never been higher, according to Joseph Iannetti, the center's director.
"There's a constant demand," said Iannetti, who has been training drivers since 1978. "We place everybody we train, and it's never been like that before."
The average annual wage for U.S. heavy truck and tractor trailer drivers rose to $39,830 in 2011, up 9.7 percent from five years before, according to the most recent data available from the Labor Department. Average hourly wages increased the same amount during the period to $19.15.
From the end of 2010 through January, trucking companies have boosted payrolls by 8.1 percent, or 102,900 jobs, more than twice the 3.4 percent gain in overall employment, according to Labor Department data released Feb. 1. During the 18-month recession that ended in June, 2009, trucking jobs declined at about double the rate of total payroll losses.
Analysts project more gains as the economy expands and truckers face new limits on hours of service. The industry is more than 125,000 drivers short of what it needs to meet demand, according to FTR Associates, the Bloomington, Indiana-based freight data and forecasting firm. The shortfall probably will more than double at the end of this year to 259,000 drivers, the biggest deficit in nine years, according to an FTR forecast.
"We're projecting a continued slow growth in the economy but that growth will be fast enough to keep truck freight growing," said Larry Gross, a senior consultant at FTR. He said new regulations, which will start to be enforced in July, will cut driver productivity and curb hours driven, resulting in a "significant tightening of capacity."
The Transportation Department last February cut the maximum time drivers can remain on duty. Commercial truck drivers can work 70 hours a week, down from 82 hours.
About nine in 10 long-distance carriers report that they can't find enough drivers, said Bob Costello, chief economist at the American Trucking Associations, the Arlington, Va.-based industry group. Annual employee turnover at smaller trucking companies with less than $30 million a year in revenue rose to a five-year high of 94 percent in the third quarter, while larger rivals have a 104 percent rate, ATA data show.
The ATA's For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index rose in December to 121.8, the second highest in four decades of history. The record was 124.4 in December 2011. The gauge of tonnage hauled in the U.S., based on surveys from members, has rebounded from a seven- year low of 100.2 in April 2009.
"We're hauling everything from raw materials to finished goods, so we're the entire supply chain," Costello said. "It's a great reflection of the tangible economy, everything that's manufactured, wholesaled and retailed. You can't put services in the back of a truck."
Trucking shares rose to a record last month. The Bloomberg U.S. Trucking Index of 24 companies including J.B. Hunt Transport Services and C.H. Robinson Worldwide closed at 125.12 on Jan. 28, the highest in almost two decades of history after advancing 24 percent from last year's low of 101.02 in August.
Listings for truckers showed the biggest increase last year among 31 occupations, according to JobDig, operator of the LinkUp.com job search engine that matches drivers with companies. The 12,472 new listings and 34,104 total positions posted in the fourth quarter both more than tripled from first quarter levels, according to data from the Minneapolis-based firm, which tracks openings at 25,000 firms.
JobDig Chief Executive Officer Toby Dayton said some trucking firms are turning down business because of driver shortages. They are paying higher salaries, offering signing bonuses and paying for training, certification and licensing for new drivers, he said.
"They know that wages are going to have to go up in this area if they want to get their trucks on the road," Dayton said. "They literally have trucks sitting in lots that aren't moving and they've got to turn down jobs if they can't get drivers for 17 trucks that they have in St. Cloud, Minn. There's a very high level of frustration."
Some companies are paying bonuses of as much as $5,000 for drivers who stay for at least a year and are even starting their own training programs, said Charles Clowdis, managing director of transportation advisory services at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass. He sees the need for recruits in newspaper ads and on the air.
"I judge by how many columns there are, and when it gets up to one entire page the shortage is real," said Clowdis, who advises freight companies. "On any of the talk-radio stations you get nothing but truck driver ads."
Trucking firms are confronting a "quality-driver shortage" made worse by workers leaving the job because of the long hours and time away from home, which boosts demand for the most experienced with clean driving records, according to Tripper Allen, president of Group1201, a Marietta, Ga.-based advertising firm that specializes in truck-driver recruitment.
Adding to the shortage is turnover because the "challenges and sacrifices" of long hours and stress don't make the paycheck worth it, according to Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Grain Valley, Mo.-based Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
Companies including Werner Enterprises are doing more to retain drivers by keeping them closer to home. The Omaha, Neb.-based trucker, whose routes span North America from Alaska to Mexico, gets about 70 percent of its drivers home once a week, up from about one-third five years ago, said Werner Chief Operating Officer Derek Leathers. That reduces the extended trips that have been one of the biggest barriers to retention in the industry, he said.
Yet he sees more challenges ahead in recruiting if there is a sustained recovery in housing and construction, which both pull workers from the same labor force as truckers.
"We could be faced with a very tight driver market before the end of the year really depending on at what pace the economy starts to recover," said Leathers, a 22-year industry veteran. "Drivers are becoming more and more of a scarce resource every day."
As a newly minted trucker, Boyd says learning the trade gave him a new outlook.
"You just have a whole new appreciation for what these guys go out and do on a day-to-day basis: the complexity, the safety," Boyd said. "You always have to be on your toes. You can't let your mind wander."
— With assistance from Lorraine Woellert in Washington and Anthony Feld in New York.