Driver Shortage Spurs Company Incentive Plans


The future of the trucking industry is riding on drivers like Michael Stewart. Drawn to trucking by the freedom that it offers, the young ex-roofer shrugs off its inconveniences: public restrooms, roadside meals, endless boredom.

His family isn’t so tolerant. Stewart, 28, gets home to Phoenix just twice a week, and his departures usually leave his 4-year-old son in tears. Last year, he missed his wife’s birthday, his wedding anniversary and Christmas.

His wife, Teri, wants him to quit. “I’m tired of being mommy and daddy,” she said. “I have to remind myself: This is what puts food on our table.”


The Stewart family’s dilemma isn’t new to trucking, an industry that each year loses 30% of its drivers to occupations offering higher pay and stable hours. But the family’s problem has taken on new importance because of a driver shortage that has idled trucks and threatens to disrupt freight shipments. The industry figures that it will need 450,000 new drivers this year, 100,000 more than were hired in 1989, according to David Reed, a Hudson Institute researcher who has studied the problem.

With so many jobs to fill, trucking executives are taking a more sympathetic view of drivers. Once regarded as easily replaced commodities, drivers increasingly are courted--even pampered--by employers.


To make drivers comfortable and happy, some firms have equipped chrome-laden trucks with soft seats and fancy electronic gadgets, such as stereos and cellular phones.

Other companies encourage drivers to take their wives on long hauls to make the trips more pleasant. One Arizona trucking company started a club for drivers’ wives.

One firm sends its dispatchers and fleet supervisors to sensitivity training sessions to learn how to talk nicely to drivers. Signs in some company terminals offer this reminder: “We dispatch people, not trucks.”

Growing numbers of trucking firms are starting recruitment departments and tuition-free schools to find and train prospective drivers. One company that has never advertised job openings now sends recruiters to truck stops and military bases to find driver candidates.

Stewart’s employer, Swift Transportation, acted quickly when it learned of the family’s trouble. The Phoenix-based company changed Stewart’s schedule to get him home twice a week instead of only once every two weeks and invited his wife to join a company-sponsored support group for drivers’ wives.

Jerry Moyes, owner of Swift, said his firm’s success depends on the happiness of its drivers. “If we want drivers to stay in our industry, we better take care of them and treat them well.”

Moyes and other trucking executives acknowledge that this attitude is new. A decade ago, drivers were plentiful and easily replaced, thanks to a growing work force. Now, a national labor shortage gives even unskilled young adults a career choice, and few pick trucking.

It is lonely work. A trip between Los Angeles and New York keeps a driver away from home for up to three weeks in a world defined by roadside motels, public restrooms and chicken-fried steak. It involves heavy labor; non-union drivers, who form the bulk of the industry’s work force, often must load and unload their freight.

The pay is low. Bernard Campbell, a trucking industry analyst with Data Resources, an economic research firm in Cambridge, Mass., said it is possible to earn as much as $40,000 a year as a truck driver, but only by working six days a week and spending long stretches of time on the road. Most drivers earn a lot less, he said, around $20,000 a year.

And it is a dead-end job. Very few drivers move from their trucks into such management positions as dispatcher or fleet supervisor. With no opportunity to move up, discouraged drivers move out.

Many Frustrations

Take Jim Erickson, a 34-year-old Minneapolis driver who spent four days recently at an Ontario, Calif., truck stop, waiting for his dispatcher to call with an assignment.

The layover was, in his view, a metaphor for his career: a big waste of time. “I’ve kind of had it,” said Erickson, who sees no future in trucking. He plans to quit to take a job as a carpenter that offers steady hours and the possibility of becoming his own boss.

The driver shortage has so far affected only a scattered number of trucking companies, but a severe shortage of drivers could tie industrial America in knots. Without enough drivers, truck shipments to factories and stores would arrive late, slowing production and causing shortages.

The driver shortage is worst in the Northeast, where cold weather and congested roads make it unpleasant to drive a truck. But many trucking executives throughout the country--even in Sun Belt states--say they are short-handed.

Pomona trucking executive Gus Osterkamp says that at least 12 of Osterkamp Trucking’s 250 trucks are idle each day because he can’t find anyone to drive them. Teamsters Union official Alex Ybarrolaza says the situation is tight in Northern California, where he estimates that 10,000 jobs are unfilled.

The shortage caused Teresi Trucking of Lodi to scrap plans for a new terminal in Tulare. “We decided it would be a big mistake to open a terminal, buy six or eight trucks and not have drivers for them,” said Teresi executive Ferrell Edwards.

The driver shortage is expected to worsen as tough new federal drug-testing and licensing laws force drivers off the road. Many drivers are expected to flunk drug tests mandated under a law that went into effect last month.

“We are going to see a lot of fallout from the tests,” said Conway Western executive Bob Diaz, who predicted that trucking firms will lose business, at least temporarily, as drug-using drivers are taken off the road.

Diaz speaks from experience. When Conway Western, based in Santa Fe Springs, started testing its drivers for drug use three years ago, half failed. That rate has since dropped to 10%, thanks to a companywide anti-drug campaign and screening of job applicants.

New licensing tests are also sidelining drivers. Last year, California became the first state to comply with a federal law that requires the tougher tests, and 35% of the drivers failed.

The tests are intended to get unqualified drivers off the road and help reduce a truck accident rate that has climbed 40% nationwide since 1982. California truck drivers now take detailed written tests and 90-minute road tests before getting licenses. By 1992, every state must have license tests similar to California’s.

Legal Roadblocks

Trucking firms face other legal roadblocks in their search for drivers. Recruitment efforts are handicapped by federal laws requiring that interstate drivers read English and be at least 21 years old. Those rules eliminate a vast pool of job-seeking immigrants and high-school dropouts.

Few job applicants meet legal and company job requirements, which sometimes include passing psychological tests. Osterkamp, the Pomona trucking executive, said that out of 100 recent job applicants, only 10 were qualified and only three took a job with his company.

Osterkamp’s firm is too small to launch an all-out effort to find and train drivers, but his larger competitors have done so.

Trucking magazines are loaded with ads that promise recruits decent pay, new trucks and frequent trips home. A number of nationwide firms display ads for drivers on company trucks.

Swift Transportation tripled the size of its recruitment department last year, and another firm, J. B. Hunt Transport Services of Lowell, Ark., doubled its hiring force.

J. B. Hunt posts a recruiter at each of its terminals, including one in South Gate. The recruiters visit truck stops and military bases in search of prospects. The company sends its recruits to a 12-week driver course at its headquarters and houses the trainees in company-leased apartments. It’s all free, and graduates are promised a job.

Other trucking companies have taken similar steps.

Conway Western, a non-union unit of Consolidated Freightways, gets 80% of its new drivers from its schools in Santa Fe Springs, Oakland and Phoenix. Potential drivers--among them former-teachers, store clerks and warehouse workers--attend the tuition-free school while receiving pay from the company for work on the loading docks. After a 10-week course that includes lessons on safety and hazardous wastes, students take a 57-mile road test on Los Angeles-area freeways.

Without the schools, Conway Western would be understaffed, according to George C. Reid, the firm’s president. “Our ability to grow would be severely constrained.”

But trucking executives say schools are only part of the solution.

A discouraging number of the graduates quit. Moyes, the owner of Swift Transportation, said 35% of his school’s graduates quit after a year and go on to different firms or to new occupations. Other trucking companies also report disappointing retention rates.

Swift and other trucking firms try to keep drivers by making the job more appealing. Bakersfield trucking executive Don H. Freymiller put high-quality stereo speakers, cassette players and television sets in Freymiller Trucking’s 625 vehicles to make long trips more tolerable. The trucks’ extended cabs are also equipped with cots.

“It’s not a motel room but it’s comfortable,” he said.

Flexible Schedules

Freymiller also installed comfortable passenger seats in his trucks and encourages drivers to take their wives on long trips. He said the amenities offered by his company are an important reason he has no trouble finding drivers.

In an effort to make drivers happy, some companies are trying to reduce the number of days drivers are away from home.

Conway Western, from example, recently paid $2 million for 40 acres in Kettleman City, halfway between Los Angeles and Oakland on Interstate 5. The company plans to build a “turn station” there, where northbound drivers will trade loads with southbound drivers. This means that drivers who once made the two-day round trip between Los Angeles and Oakland would make a one-day round trip between Los Angeles and Kettleman City. “Our goal,” a company executive said, “is to get our drivers home every night.”

Not every trucking company can do that. Swift Transportation drivers make deliveries in 12 Western states, and its drivers get home three times a week at best. In an effort to ease the strain on his drivers’ families, Moyes five months ago started a club for drivers’ wives.

“This way, if a wife has a problem, she knows another wife with a husband who works for the company,” he said.

The 65 wives who have joined the club put together a phone list so they can contact each other for support.

The wives try to get the children involved too. The highlight of last year’s Christmas party was a tour of a big rig so children could see what their fathers drive.

Teri Stewart said the club has made her role as a driver’s wife tolerable, and she is trying not to pressure her husband to make a career switch--for now. “You see other women who deal with the strain,” she said. “It makes it easier.”

AMERICAN TRUCK DRIVERS * The “typical” truck driver is a white male, married and over 40. * Women account for only 2% of the nation’s 2 million drivers. Among male drivers, 79% are white, 13% are black and 6% are Latino. * The average weekly earnings in 1989 for drivers of heavy trucks were $416. That compares to average weekly wages of $399 for all full-time employed workers. * Education levels for the majority of drivers is four years of high school (1989 statistics below include truck and other commercial drivers compared to the general U.S. population)

Education level Drivers U.S. Less than high school 27% 14% Four years of high school 54% 40% One to three years of college 14% 20% Four years of college or more 5% 26%

Sources: American Trucking Assns., Bureau of Labor Statistics