Truckers fill up at a truck stop last month in Rye, N.H.
© Associated PressTruckers fill up at a truck stop last month in Rye, N.H.

Shortage in quality drivers

Trucking companies are struggling to find qualified drivers even as the U.S. unemployment rate remains at the highest level in almost 30 years.

Driver turnover rose to 89 percent in the third quarter of 2011, the highest since 2008 and the fourth consecutive quarter of increases, according to data from the American Trucking Associations.

That's mostly because new regulations and job prospects in other industries are creating a "quality shortage" of available workers, said Bob Costello, chief economist for the Arlington, Va.-based group.

The increase in turnover is troubling because as the economic expansion continues to gain strength, trucking is "an industry that has jobs and may not be able to fill them," said Charles Clowdis, managing director of transportation advisory services at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass. To attract and retain drivers, trucking companies will need to offer higher pay, which will probably necessitate rate increases, he said.

Companies such as Swift Transportation Co. and Celadon Group Inc. may be able to outpace the higher costs with rate increases that will improve profit, said John Larkin, an analyst in Baltimore at Stifel Nicolaus & Co.

The U.S. jobless rate remains elevated at 8.3 percent, compared with less than 5 percent before the 18-month recession that began in late 2007. Even so, difficulty in recruiting and retaining workers probably will be the No. 1 issue affecting Swift and the industry, company president Richard Stocking said at a March 15 conference hosted by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

"It's kind of a weird situation when you have millions and millions of people out of work to have a driver shortage, but it's starting to present itself again," Stocking said.

Newfound stability in construction is partially to blame for poaching candidates as hiring in this industry picks up, said Thom Albrecht, an analyst in Richmond, Va., at BB&T Capital Markets. Construction work offers a "better quality of life," he said. Instead of spending several days on the road, people can work the same number of hours, make a comparable salary and go home every night.

Worker mobility between these industries caused many people to take trucking jobs during the recession, Clowdis said. Those who obtain a commercial driver license often get one that's all-encompassing, qualifying them to drive both a dump truck, for example, and an 18-wheeler, he said.

The number of people working in construction grew 1.2 percent in February to 5.6 million from a year earlier, the sixth consecutive month of gains, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. The economy has added about 65,000 jobs in this industry in the past year, though it's shed more than 2.1 million since peaking in April 2006.

New regulations intended to increase truck safety also are affecting hiring, Larkin said. Some of these rules - from the Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration - were implemented in 2010. More are on the way next year, which "will further reduce the effective workforce, as well as hamper productivity," he said.

Safety records are now posted online for infractions that include speeding tickets, moving violations and improper load securement, Larkin said. The resulting shrinkage in available drivers has cost the industry as much as 3 percent of capacity. Forthcoming changes include further limits on the number of hours that drivers can work and requiring on-board trip recorders.

This is tightening the supply of available drivers for such companies as Werner Enterprises Inc. The Omaha, Neb.-based carrier anticipates finding drivers will be "even more challenging" this year than last, the company said in a Jan. 26 statement.

Similarly, Arkansas Best Corp. forecasts a "potential drag," with more than 400,000 drivers possibly exiting the industry by the end of 2014 due in large part to the regulatory changes, chief financial officer Michael Newcity said at a Feb. 16 conference hosted by BB&T Capital Markets, citing FTR Associates data.

Some people laid off during the downturn may be claiming jobless benefits and supplementing this with under-the-table jobs instead of returning to work, Larkin said. The extension of unemployment insurance payments to as much as 99 weeks is one of the "larger competitors" for Werner, president Derek Leathers said at a Nov. 16 conference hosted by Stephens Inc.

To combat this, companies are trying to make driving jobs more attractive by offering pay increases, sign-on bonuses and other perks, Clowdis said.

Phoenix-based Swift will provide raises based on miles driven, safety and service to customers, Stocking said. Old Dominion Freight Line Inc. bumped up salaries by 3 percent in September, chief financial officer J. Wes Frye said on a Feb. 2 conference call.

Higher wages probably will translate into increased rates for customers, the trucking associations' Costello said.

Swift and Celadon should be able to raise rates faster than the cost of inflation, Larkin said.

Even so, the confluence of regulations and a rebound in the U.S. construction market is reducing the supply of qualified applicants, Clowdis said.

"Right now, there simply are not enough drivers coming into the market to fill all the seats at many trucking firms," he said.