Friday August 9, 2013

Trucking companies in Michigan and across the country are aggressively pursuing new drivers as the industry struggles with high turnover rates, tighter driving regulations and increased demand to ship cargo.

Companies, which ship everything from cars and video games to raw goods and machinery, are spending more money on hiring and advertising. One Metro Detroit company has even started its own driving school to find and prepare workers for long hauls on the road.

With a national turnover rate above 90 percent, an abundance of drivers reaching retirement age and a law enacted this summer limiting the amount of time on the road to just 70 hours a week (down from 82), companies are scrambling to hire.

"All these pressures come together and you have the perfect storm," said Walter Heinritzi, executive director of the Lansing-based Michigan Trucking Association, which represents trucking companies throughout the state.

The American Trucking Association estimates a nationwide shortage of 25,000 truck drivers, a number that could balloon to 240,000 by 2020 at the current pace. The number of people working in truck-related jobs nationwide has dropped to 6.9 million in 2011 from 7.6 million a decade before.

While estimates of shortages weren't available for Michigan, the number of truck drivers in the state dropped by about 18 percent in the last decade to 70,210.The shortage affects carriers and drivers across the U.S.

Bob Costello, a chief economist with the American Trucking Association, said the driver shortage began after 2009 and is a multifaceted problem. Compounding the problems is growing national demand to ship more goods by truck, according to the Department of Transportation.

"We're starting to move more freight, we're putting more trucks on the road but there are more alternatives for those looking at trucking," he said. "I don't see it going away."

Costello said those alternatives include jobs in other industries, such as construction, that are less demanding. Truckers in some companies are often on the road for long stretches of time, making it unappealing to those with families. Prospective drivers are often scared off by the rigorous demands of truck driving school, which include two weeks to two months of training and written and behind-the-wheel tests.

"Not just anybody can do it," said Boyd Stephenson, a director of licensing policy for the national association.

Carriers throughout the Great Lakes State are coping in different ways. Many, such as Canton-based Reliable Carriers, Inc. and Farmington Hills-based Corrigan Moving Systems are hiring and advertising aggressively. Corrigan has 600 employees and Reliable has about 200.

"It's a problem for all of us," said Bob Sellers, general manager of Reliable Carriers. "I don't think it will get easier; it's only going to get more challenging."

Recruiting in full force

Ann Arbor-based Con-Way freight, which has 21,000 employees, saw the problem coming in 2010, and decided that if it couldn't find drivers, it would train its own.

The company started its first driver training school in Romulus, and has since added about 100 training centers across the country. The 12-week course is free to Con-Way employees who work on the dock loading and unloading freight. Upon graduating, workers are guaranteed a driving job with the company, and drivers make between $45,000 to $55,000 a year.

The guarantee of a job drove Raymond McClendon, a 40-year-old Inkster resident, to learn how to drive a truck. He was surprised by the complexity of the class, but happy he took it.

"Everything's been perfect," the former hi-lo driver said. "It changed my life."

Con-Way has graduated nearly 1,400 drivers through its school.

"We saw the need for a different way to bring professionals to the industry," said Tom Clark, senior vice president of operations. "We knew hiring outside wasn't going to be as efficient and safe as we wanted it to be."

Reliable Carriers is hiring from outside, and spending good money to do so. Sellers said that five years ago, the company did virtually no advertising. This year alone, it's spent $50,000 for signage, ads in truck magazines, and even a show truck that travels to industry conventions to get Reliable's name out.

"We've never had to recruit the entire time we've been in business; we've always had a waiting list to work here," Sellers said. "Now, we're actively out there beating the drum."

The company, which ships cars for events such as auto shows and for individual car collectors,has about 100 trucks on the road throughout the country. Sellers blames tighter driving restrictions on the shortage.

Young folks sought

Federal regulators enacted a change last month that restricts truckers to 70 hours on the road during a seven-day work week -- down from 82 hours.

In addition to that issue, Reliable Carriers is dealing with a majority of its workers nearing retirement age, and there's not a lot of new blood waiting in the wings, Sellers said.

"Truck driving is not something young people want to do," he said.

That young crowd, though, is exactly the demographic Corrigan Moving Systems is hoping to attract. The Farmington Hills-based company is seeking 200 workers to fill driving and moving positions. Owner Dave Corrigan said his company is affected by the driver shortage, but thinks it's an attractive summer job for teens and young professionals.

"We're looking for a college student or a high school graduate; somebody who likes to use their hands and be outdoors," he said. "There's definitely a need for drivers, but we've been able to find a way to service everyone's needs."

Most carriers don't believe the problem will go away anytime soon.

"We're going to have to be more aggressive in keeping the pipeline full of quality (drivers)," Sellers said. "We need to find innovative ways to tap into the resources, wherever they are."