A Truckload of Troubles

Imagine applying for a job at a company, one of the largest in the industry, that ranks in the top 10 percent for pay. The company is investing heavily in its employees — providing new facilities like fitness rooms and lounges — and offers top-of-the-line, brand-new equipment.
Then imagine learning that turnover is 134 percent.

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That company, Tulsa-based Melton Truck Lines, like so many of the thousands of trucking companies across the nation, battles the same problem in the trucking industry — driver turnover.
“It shocked me when I first came to the business — I thought, this must be a terrible place to work,” said Dan Taylor, vice president of sales and marketing for Melton, headquartered on 161st East Avenue north of I-44.
“It is a big challenge to attract and retain quality drivers,” Taylor said.
There is no single reason for it, either.
“Over the course of time there are a number of things that contribute to driver turnover,” he said.
In the past, society considered truck driving a professional career.
But today, there are too many things that lure people from the industry.
Trucking has become an industry where retention is difficult and truckers range from second-career PhDs to people who have GEDs. There are farmers looking for a new opportunity, burned-out office workers tired of looking at the same four walls, displaced manufacturing employees and construction workers tired of on-again, off-again schedules. Even so, grueling schedules and long periods away from home turn away even the most devout loner.
Another reason companies find it difficult to retain drivers is that the nation’s roads are much more congested than they were just 15 to 20 years ago, Taylor said.
“If anyone has driven in the Washington, D.C. area, or Virginia, Massachusetts, Newark — it is stressful just driving in the bumper-to-bumper traffic,” Taylor said. “And, then put an 84-foot, 18-wheeler pulling 60,000 pounds in traffic — knowing you can’t stop if that guy in a car directly in front of you does.”
Among the other things that compounds drivers’ frustration is the lack of parking, Taylor said.
“It sounds like a small thing, but if you are out on (Long) Island for a delivery, and you have to keep circling round and round and round until you either find a place to park or someone to off-load you,” he said.
Another issue that contributes to driver shortages in long-haul truckload markets, is the away-from-home lifestyle.
“I think that, generally, society is more home- and family-oriented,” Taylor said. “It is one thing to have drivers out for weeks at a time. It is another thing to find a partner who is strong enough to manage the house, the kids — without someone to help out all the time.”

Driver Shortages and Wages
The trucking industry, with all its troubles, still transports more than 80 percent of all goods consumed in the U.S. — from newsprint to computers, from the lunch we eat to the phones at our ears. All are brought to consumers on a truck.
The for-hire trucking sector is running flat-out, according to Dan Case, executive director of the Oklahoma Trucking Association. The U.S. economy and booming manufacturing industry are utilizing nearly all the truckload capacity.
Trucking is critical in Oklahoma, since the state’s largest economic sectors are agriculture, transportation equipment, machinery, electric products, rubber, plastic and food processing — which all require over-the-road transport.
Trucking use in Oklahoma in 2004, the latest year for which statistics are available, was 7.2 billion miles. Big rigs represented 15 percent of all roadway traffic in the state.
The trucking industry provided 92,883 jobs in the state in 2004 — or one out of 14 jobs.
Total trucking wages in 2004 exceeded $3.1 billion with an average trucking salary of $34,222, Case said.
But the demand for drivers continues to rise, he said.
The American Trucking Association has called it the worst labor shortage in the history of the industry.
Last year the ATA published a report, commissioned from Global Insight, which predicted that the current driver shortage of 20,000 could mushroom to 111,000 by 2014.
The study predicted that if current trends continue, the supply of new truck drivers will grow at an annual rate of 1.6 percent over the next 10 years. It also predicted economic growth will demand an increase of 2.2 percent, or 320,000, in new drivers, according to Rebecca Brewster of ATA.
“The demand doesn’t stop there,” said Dan Case of the OTA. “Another 219,000 drivers must be found to replace those 55 and older who retire.”
By that reckoning, the need is really 539,000 — or 54,000 a year for the next 10 years.
Trucking industry officials have said that it may take an annual wage hike to $60,000 to $65,000 to keep existing drivers and to attract new ones.
Currently, drivers earn anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000, depending on experience and what they are hauling, Case said.
Pick up and delivery drivers earn $50,000 to $60,000 annually. Over-the-road drivers typically earn $45,000 to $55,000 and earn more with experience.

Hours-of-Service Rules
Last year new federal regulations went into effect on the number of hours a trucker can drive at a time. Operators now drive 11 hours per day rather than 10, but drivers must have longer breaks in between.
A federal appeals court has questioned if these hours negatively impact drivers’ health. If the DOT rules reduce driving/working hours, it will significantly reduce driver productivity and their paychecks, Case said.
The net result would likely be a huge demand for additional drivers to fill empty seats.
Melton does all it can to attract and retain drivers, Taylor said.
“Here, it is all about the driver,” he said. “I tell my (sales) guys that, ‘You guys go get the customer, but it is the drivers who keep them.’”
“We invest a lot in our guys,” Taylor added.
“Sometimes I wonder if it does any good. Then I wonder, ‘What would it be if we did not do it?’” ?

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