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Trucking industry needs a load of drivers

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(Mike Greene – mgreene@shawmedia.com)
Benjamin Rock of Harvard looks into mirrors in the front of the truck to check his clearance while practicing for the yard test Monday at Eagle Truck Driving School in Lake in the Hills. Rock is in his fourth week of training at the school and has two weeks remaining in order to earn a hazmat clearance.

The nights Kenneth Karkau spent in his own bed used to be few and far between.

The former truck driver lived on the road for much of more than 20 years – hauling freight from state to state for three days at a time, then coming home for a day before doing it all over again.

Driving big rigs was a lifestyle choice for the Johnsburg resident, who started his driving career in the Army in the mid-1970s while stationed in Frankfurt, Germany.

“I miss the road every once in a while, but it is nice sleeping in my own bed every night,” the 55-year-old said. “The freedom of being on my own and the pay was appealing when I was starting out because I was single, but it’s not for everyone,” he said.

Having traded the comfort of a big-rig cab for a desk in the front of a classroom, Karkau now spends his days training others to become drivers through Lake in the Hills-based Eagle Training Services Inc.

A nationwide shortage of about 120,000 drivers could balloon to more than 240,000 by the end of next year and a shortage of 600,000 by 2016, experts say. That has industry leaders refocusing on recruitment.

The current shortage is twofold.

It takes a lot of work to hire drivers and the federal government is increasing regulations, which in turn reduces productivity and disqualifies a certain number of drivers, said Noel Perry, senior consultant at the Freight Transportation Research Association.

The attractiveness of trucking also is lagging.

“From a demographic standpoint, the number of people entering the workforce who we can recruit is falling,” Perry said. “It was much bigger when baby boomers were entering the workforce.”

Between 500,000 and 600,000 employees a year were leaving manufacturing and construction for trucking before the economy went south, Perry said. But now that those industries are growing again, it’s unlikely either will contribute to the pool of driver candidates, he said.

“The potential recruiting base is much smaller and will continue to be get smaller and smaller later in the decade,” he said. “The industry has exhausted its supply of nomadic people who liked being on the road.”

To allow drivers who get home once every two weeks another day off would require about a 10 percent increase in the cost of trucking, Perry said.

Nonetheless, the industry adds about 1 million drivers each year because “to a certain part of the population, being on your own, driving across the country and having no one to watch over you is a good thing,” he said.

About half of all truckers sleep at home every night. That sector has turnover rate of about a 15 percent to 20 percent a year compared with 50 percent or more for “over the road” truckers who are paid by the mile and spend most of their time away from home.

Equipment improvements and better compensation are on the uptick as ways of enticing potential drivers, said Jeff Clark, managing partner at Eagle Training Services, which partners with area community colleges to offer training courses.

It takes about five weeks to become a certified driver, who typically earns between $45,000 and $70,000 a year.

“Most companies will offer tuition reimbursement and signing bonuses for students,” Clark said. “They are trying to respond, and some companies are more successful than others.”

Reaching out to young people and easing regulations also could add drivers.

“You have to be 21 to cross state lines in a commercial vehicle, so we lose out on those people between high school and that age,” Clark said.

Solving the driver shortage is simple, Perry said. “They need more time at home, compensation, a quality workplace, and proper funding for recruitment.”

Still, the bottom isn’t likely to fall out of the trucking industry.

“It is very cheap compared to its value, and the economy has always been dependent on transportation,” Perry said. “At some point over the next 10 years, the stars are going to align and 5 percent of shippers won’t be able to get trucks during peak periods.”

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