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.”