Business

Trucking industry scouts untapped potential from women and young people

Morgan Bonefas of Waterloo practices driving a tanker truck Thursday around a course at the Kirkwood Continuing Education Training Center in Cedar Rapids. After several years of driving dry trucks, Bonefas is learning how to drive tankers, which haul liquids, in Kirkwood Community College’s 80-hour tanker training course. Dealing with a driver shortage, trucking firms — whose drivers typically have been middle-aged men — increasing are looking to hire and retain women. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Morgan Bonefas of Waterloo practices driving a tanker truck Thursday around a course at the Kirkwood Continuing Education Training Center in Cedar Rapids. After several years of driving dry trucks, Bonefas is learning how to drive tankers, which haul liquids, in Kirkwood Community College’s 80-hour tanker training course. Dealing with a driver shortage, trucking firms — whose drivers typically have been middle-aged men — increasing are looking to hire and retain women. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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As the nation’s freight companies struggle to find enough people to fill their workforce needs, some of Iowa’s industry leaders are turning to untapped labor pools like women and young people to find drivers.

Amy Lasack, senior director of corporate training with Kirkwood Community College, said a number of factors play into the shortage of truck drivers, including a nationwide low unemployment rate compounded by the growing freight traffic from rising e-commerce shopping habits.

“You could talk to just about any trucking company in the region and they’re going to tell you they have trucks sitting there ready to go. They have business, but they can’t continue to operate on that business because they don’t have anybody to drive that freight,” Lasack said.

The shortage

A 2017 American Trucking Associations’ analysis found that the nation’s trucking industry was short about 36,500 drivers in 2016.

The shortage is expected to climb to more than 174,000 by 2026, according to the study.

Brenda Neville, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Motor Truck Association, said the shortage remains the industry’s biggest ongoing challenge.

“I think you could line 10 CEOs up and nine of them would say their No. 1 issue is filling the trucks, finding good drivers,” she said.

A “Critical Issues in the Trucking Industry” report by the American Transportation Research Institute, completed last October, listed the driver shortage as the top industry concern for the second consecutive year.

“Growing demand for truck transportation over the past year has exacerbated industry capacity constraints as carriers continue to struggle with recruiting and retaining a qualified truck driver workforce,” the report stated.

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At Kirkwood, Lasack said the school’s four-week truck driver training program sees about six students per class and has room to expand.

Untapped labor pools

It’s no secret in the industry the vast majority of licensed truck drivers are middle-aged men.

The average age of an over-the-road truck driver was 49, compared with 42 for all U.S. workers, a 2017 American Trucking Associations report found.

Meanwhile, the October critical issues report notes that 22 percent of truck drivers are 55 or older, approaching retirement. That report includes strategies to attract, train and retain 18- to 20-year-olds as a way of filling positions.

“Certainly folks between the ages of 18 and 21 have a little more freedom when it comes to that; they don’t have kids’ activities back home and families that they have to attend to every night,” Lasack said.

Drivers can obtain a commercial license at 18, but federal law prohibits them from driving across state boundaries until they are 21.

The critical issues report suggests Congress pass the DRIVE-Safe Act, which would lower the interstate commercial truck driving age to 18 — paired with on-the-job training for new hires.

The DRIVE-Safe Act proposes a two-step apprenticeship program for 18- to 21-year-old drivers aimed at building experience and confidence behind the wheel.

Neville, of the Iowa Motor Truck Association, said the hope is that allowing over-the-road jobs for those out of high school catches the interest of potential drivers before they move on to other career paths.

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“It’s not just looking for an excuse to get an 18-year-old behind the wheel. It’s looking for an opportunity to attract potential candidates into the trucking industry and legitimately give them the opportunity to be a long-haul trucker. And in order to do that, they want to drive outside of state lines,” she said.

But Neville acknowledged the push to allow younger drivers pass state lines isn’t universally supported, with experience and insurance costs common concerns.

“I would say 30 to 40 percent of our members would not be comfortable putting an 18-year-old behind the wheel,” she said.

Neville said work is underway to collect data on the driving habits, safety and collisions of Iowa’s 18- to 21-year-old CDL-certified drivers.

“We’re saying let’s eliminate that barrier of entry. And let’s get a look at the data and let’s get them into an apprenticeship program where we give them that possibility to drive out of the state if they so desire,” she said.

In addition to younger drivers, women also are underrepresented in the trucking industry.

According to the 2017 American Trucking Associations report, women made up just 6 percent of all truck drivers. By contrast, women represented 47 percent of the U.S. workforce that year.

“We are seeing some increase in the amount of women that are getting into the industry,” Neville said.

Still, Neville also said, the driver shortage has forced some companies to become more flexible when it comes to a driver’s background or criminal history.

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Federal rules dictate whether a traffic violation results in a temporary or lifetime disqualification from commercial driving. A first-offense drunken driving charge results in a one-year disqualification, while a second offense makes that a lifetime ban with reinstatement possible only under certain conditions after a decade.

Neville said employers are becoming more flexible with drivers where they can be. That doesn’t change the laws, but employers may be more willing to give potential employees a second chance, as long as that doesn’t violate existing rules, she said.

“I think at this point we have to be, as an industry, very open-minded and look at every possible avenue for a potential employee,” she said. “I think that is where we’re at and I think that is happening.”

Retaining drivers

Chris Hummer, president of Don Hummer Trucking in Oxford, which has about 425 employees and contractors, said while his workforce has been pretty strong, quality drivers always are in demand.

“I would say we are better than most in the industry, but we are always looking for additional drivers,” he said.

Retaining existing employees can be as important as hiring new ones.

In such a competitive field, pay increases and signing bonuses have become commonplace.

Hummer said oftentimes employers need to consider more than just a pay increase to attract and retain drivers.

“I think people are looking at more than just, ‘What is my paycheck?’ I think as an employer, you have to be aware of that,” Hummer said. “We’re constantly looking at how we improve the overall package ... often more goes into it than what is the rate of pay.”

Hummer said benefits packages, wellness incentives or allowing drivers to take their pets on the road with them can make the job more appealing to potential drivers.

The October critical issues report also recommends added research into retention, including the relationship between compensation and productivity as well as the effectiveness of existing retention programs.

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Hummer said it’s important also to consider enhancing efficiencies in the freight transportation chain to make the most of the drivers currently on the road.

“I think the industry as a whole has quite a bit of work to do, particularly in the role of shippers and receivers, how they schedule appointments and how they work with transportation providers,” Hummer said.

Better coordination between all parties in the supply chain can reduce wait times and make drivers more productive, he added.

State officials say Iowa’s participation in the Trucks Park Here program, which connects truck drivers to available parking spaces, should help enhance efficiency by reducing the time spent finding parking.

• Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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