Breaker breaker one-nine, trucking jobs dying on the vine

With a fleet of some 60 trucks, Ottawa County-based Luther Logistics is primed to expand.

If only it could find the drivers.

“I could put four or five people in a truck today,” said Jordan Luther, the firm's owner and operations manager.

“It used to be that we would get four or five people a week in here looking for jobs. Now we are lucky if we get two a month.”

The story is much the same at E.L. Hollingsworth & Co., a freight company based near Flint with about 600 drivers, about evenly split between owner operators and company drivers.

Marketing manager Scott McNiel estimates the firm could hire 50 more drivers if it could find qualified candidates. The irony is not lost on McNiel that even in a tough economy in a blue-collar state, truck driving jobs often go begging.

“Everybody wants to have a local job where they are home every night. That's not going to happen.”

If projections are right, the squeeze is destined to tighten in the years ahead. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, national demand for truck drivers is projected to rise by 330,000 jobs by 2020. In 2012, it calculated there were 1.6 million tractor-trailer and heavy-truck drivers in the United States, including 48,220 in Michigan.

In 2012, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce surveyed some 30 West Michigan trucking firms and manufacturers to assess transportation priorities. Nearly all cited the need for more qualified truck drivers.

“This is one of the top concerns across the board,” said Josh Lunger, the chamber's public policy coordinator.

“Right now it is a problem. But it is going to be much worse of a problem in two or three years.”

Analysts say the shortage affects more than trucking, an industry that employs 180,000 in Michigan, according to the Michigan Trucking Association. It also raises the cost of doing business for manufacturers by slowing deliveries and increasing supply chain wait times. In the long run, that limits job growth and passes on higher costs to consumers.

In 2012, analysis by research firm R.W. Baird said that driver shortages were limiting truck capacity and helping push up freight rates by 2 percent to 5 percent.

Michigan State University Charles Ballard said any snag in the supply line can be costly to manufacturers.

“In manufacturing industries where you are trying to get as close as you can to just-in-time production, even a small mess-up in the supply chain can cause big problems,” Ballard said.

“With the growth of trucking, trucks ever since the 1920s have been very important to the American supply chain. If there is a problem with trucking, that's a problem for the whole economy.”

Richard Bouwma, director of materials for Plastic Plates, a division of Kent County-based Lacks Enterprises, said it is getting tougher to find reliable delivery of its automotive parts products. It uses a variety of firms to ship anywhere from Canada to Mexico.

“In the past when we had a delivery to make, it was, 'No problem, we'll get it done.' Now we are hearing, 'We don't have a driver available for that particular route.'”

While frustrating, Bouwma said it has not added to expenses – yet.

“My concern is that three years from now, if we don't have drivers available, capacity is going to be limited. Prices are going to go up. That's our concern down the line.”

The shortage stems from a confluence of factors that include an aging work force, regulations that limit driver hours and an improving economy that is increasing the demand for freight while making jobs like construction look more attractive next to driving a truck.

“Part of it is demand and part of it is supply,” said Walter Heinritzi, executive director of the Michigan Trucking Association. “As the population is getting older, we are getting a lot of retirements in individuals. It's very difficult to find quality people to replace them.”

That may due in part to wages. While some drivers earn well above $50,000, the average truck driver in Michigan in 2012 earned $18.45 an hour with an annual wage of $38,370, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That may sound attractive next to a $12-an-hour manufacturing job. But new applicants first must foot the cost of truck-driving school to earn their commercial driving license – often $4,000 or more – and then face the prospect they may be gone from home days or weeks at a time.

“It's just a tough sell for many people,” Heinritzi said.

William Berenbrock, vice president of Kent County-based trucking firm WB Haulers & Storage, said inexperienced drivers are virtually forced to take jobs with national trucking firms that require drivers to be on the road for weeks at a time. That's because local trucking firms often require two years of experience to keep insurance premiums down.

“People don't find that out until after they graduate from trucking school. Then they find out they have to work for a company and be gone for four to eight weeks. That is hard on a family and hard on a marriage,” he said.

Driver turnover reflects that. According to the National Trucking Association, the annualized turnover rate in 2012 for line haul trucking firms exceeded 100 percent. That means the typical driver lasted less than one year.

Berenbrock said he would like to expand his business with the purchase of three new trucks.

“But that's on hold until I can find three new drivers. There's nothing coming down the pipeline.”

New federal regulations may add to the shortage as well. Driver-safety rules that went into effect July 1 mean that truckers cannot drive more than 70 hours in seven days. Truckers had been allowed to drive 82 hours under the former rules. With truckers logging fewer miles, that adds to the need for more drivers.

McNiel of E.L. Hollingsworth believes freight companies must do a better job marketing truck driving as a career, then give drivers a reason to stay.

“You can't just throw money at the problem,” he said. “The culture here is that we want you to think of this as a place to stay.”

McNiel said his firm offers drivers a benefits package that includes health and dental coverage, life insurance, a 401K plan and paid vacation days after one year.

It is also training non-driver employees to value the contributions of its drivers.

“The one out there providing the service is the driver. It's a whole culture shift so everyone is aware of that.”

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More Pay
Wed, 08/28/2013 - 1:51pm
The job does not PAY. The hours are rediculous. Trucking is an OLD TIMEY job that illiterate hicks used to do and ex cons and illegal aliens do today. You will not find young people subjecting themselves to an idiot job like this. If they do it wont be for long...just to get a few bucks and go look for something REALISTIC.
Thu, 08/29/2013 - 9:30am
More, I am disappointed you feel "..idiot job like this." I see at as honest labor that is critical to the safety of our highways. It seems there is real skill necessary to to maneuver those big rigs, it takes attention and concern by those drivers manager their loads (especially with some of the 'idiots' on the roads today, I am not suggesting you would be one of them), it takes knowledge of the applicable rules and regulations to properly operate those big rigs, and it takes a personal stamina and sacrifice. In spite of you seeing stuckers people doing ''idiot jobs" I see them as skill professionals that we all rely on both for the service they provide and the safety on our roads.
More Pay
Wed, 08/28/2013 - 2:10pm
If these companies are thinking of expanding it will be tough to find Long Term Quality drivers to Replace the old timers that are retiring in DROVES. Many fo the KIDS going to driving school are being sponsered by Govt subsidies like Welfare to you say QUALITY WORK??? You better think twoice about expanding on a foundation of questionalble talent? This is going to be a problem of monumental proportions very soon.....there really ARE no replacements at the prevailing wage and CONDITIONS (which are suitable for a farm animal) today. These companies are Praying they can SUCKER in returning Military Heros??? These Brave Men and Women have Honor and Self Respect..they wont be staying long in the sub human conditions and Low Pay these penny pinching "corporations" want to pay.
Wed, 08/28/2013 - 4:21pm
maybe when wages come up recruiting will be easier. $38,000 is NOT a fair wage to be away from home for weeks on end.
Wed, 08/28/2013 - 9:14pm
Not mentioned in the article but I have heard it is a big problem - finding enough people who can pass a drug test to become a driver.
Wed, 08/28/2013 - 10:45pm
There are a lot of hard working men and women driving trucks to support their families, there are no jobs that I can get back home to support a wife and kids except driving a truck. But the wages for trucking have not increased to keep up with inflation. If there's a shortage of drivers just pay more, you will get more drivers!
steve phillips
Thu, 08/29/2013 - 10:01am
Eliminate the free labor equation used by logistics, shippers and consignees. Pay drivers layovers and detentions. Driver unions for all cdl holders would improve the contrived shortage. Which is directly related to retention. Nobody deserves to lied to and deceived by there employers and there government. Get real. Get right.
John Hilton
Thu, 08/29/2013 - 10:12am
Another downside not mentioned here is that truck-driver training schools have a predatory reputation. A friend who attended a Michigan school (years ago) told me it pushed grads to buy trucks from an affiliated dealer. When the new drivers couldn't keep up the payments, they defaulted, adding to the debt they'd taken on for school. He bought the cheapest used truck on the lot. Last I knew, he was still driving.
Charles Richards
Thu, 08/29/2013 - 1:33pm
Scott McNiel of E.L. Hollingsworth believes freight companies must do a better job marketing truck driving as a career, then give drivers a reason to stay. “You can’t just throw money at the problem,” he said. “The culture here is that we want you to think of this as a place to stay.” Just how does Mr. McNiel intend to sell truck driving as a career and persuade drivers to stay? How does he intend to solve the problem without throwing more money at the problem? Experience should have taught him by this time that current wage levels are inadequate to attract the people he wants. A market economy depends on voluntary exchange; if I find your compensation adequate, I'll agree to work for you. Will he have to raise freight rates? Yes. Will those higher rates be passed on to consmers? Yes, that is how a market economy works. If the consumer wants goods available to buy, he must pay the full costs of making them available. Truck drivers should be wel compensated because there is a strong possibility they may have short careers. There has been much talk about driverless cars. (Nissan promises to have them available in 2020.) It is not a great technological leap to go from driverless cars to driverless trucks.
Thu, 08/29/2013 - 3:59pm
Why would anyone want to drive a truck when there are so many options to stay home and do nothing? Food stamps, section 8, disability on and on yah it might be crappy so why should someone be forced to belittle themselves?
Fri, 08/30/2013 - 7:23am
Time to revisit rail....for many reasons.
Wed, 09/18/2013 - 12:11am
Why? Are trains going to deliver the groceries to stores, or parts to factories?
Wed, 09/18/2013 - 12:18am
I left my dead-end job in 2006 to become a truck driver and am glad that I did. The job is hard, but rewarding, and I am proud to know that my career is absolutely essential to the nation's economy. Without truck drivers, the economy would come to a screeching halt very quickly. My salary is right around the national median salary, and after I got a couple of years' experience I found a company that gets me home five nights a week. I get three weeks paid vacation, and I love my job. Nearly everyone I meet on the road is friendly. I carry a bike on the truck and explore new cities and parks whenever I get the chance. Check out my travel photos at my website:
Melanie Hoff
Sun, 10/13/2013 - 7:35am
I've just returned from a visit to Norfolk. At a museum there, I learned that train transportation uses about half the amount of the fuel per mile as compared to a truck. In recalling this article about no one wanting to drive trucks, it occurred to me perhaps now is the time to return to trains and other more energy effective modes of cargo transportation. On top of saving precious resources, our roads would be in better shape as well.
Wed, 11/27/2013 - 11:03am
As a Driver/Trucker I would like to point out a few things from a driver's perspective, First of all although there may be jobs and companies that proclaim there is a driver shortage (good drivers), it is a two way street. Most companies are in vital need of "GOOD DISPATCH", and people who know how to do Logistics...Another issue in trucking is undue duress of D.O.T. constantly ticketing drivers for the most part for minor infractions, and non safety related issues (trust me) The fines add up...forcing drivers to reconsider their occupations and the like.,.(especially Black drivers) there should be a study done on (Racial profiling Black drivers, compared to the rest of the industry) Thirdly most companies force drivers to drive beyond their (hours of service) to get the freight delivered, causing more safety issues...These are a few things affecting good drivers and companies that "say" they want them...Fairness across the board is what is needed in this industry...Finally, to address a comment mentioned on the "reply" post...All drivers are not idiots, it is a lifestyle suited for them...a lot of drivers have ADVANCED DEGRESS. AND I have run across several M.D.s who are enjoying this way of life...etc ...
Fri, 06/27/2014 - 10:23am
You can't find good drivers because you don't want to pay. you leave OTR drivers in areas for days at a time with no work why would anyone want to sit waiting for work 500 miles from home that is why everyone want's local. . dispatch is a mess you pay them cheap so you can't get good dispatch people. pay them a salary and a small % for every load they get a driver and see what happens. start paying for dead head movement. you have a load but it's 200 miles away and what we have to use our fuel who pays for that. truck plates there not cheap nor is the tax we pay. trucks have to be maintained daily my husband has been doing this 31 years and knows how to drive the last 10 years we have seen gas prices go up and pay go down. add the cost of health care self employment cost which we pay and that MPH rate does not cover much in the end thanks