Trucking industry in need of new drivers

Photo submitted by the Washington County Career Center Instructor Brian Wise sits in the cab of a Volvo truck, demonstrating it for a representative of a funding organization in the Washington County Career Center’s commercial drivers license course at the center just outside Marietta. The center began offering a commercial driver’s license course in June to help local employers meet a demand for truck drivers and offer students a fresh avenue to work that pays well.

MARIETTA — Labor shortages have put a damper on business growth in southeast Ohio, but nowhere is that shortage more acute than in the trucking industry.

Companies compete for good drivers, when they can get them. Trucks sit idle, with work available but a dearth of people to do it. Fleet expansion plans are put on hold, and the cost of transporting goods goes up because demand exceeds the supply of workers to do the job.

Rodney Rorbaugh of Rorbaugh Trucking in Caldwell said the available pool of drivers is so dry he’s begun thinking of starting his own training program. Jay Owens of Drayer Trucking in Beverly said 25 to 30 percent of his fleet sits idle on any given day, with work available but no one to drive.

Rorbaugh is developing a long-term strategy for meeting the need. He said he’s thinking of recruiting high school students to work part-time in his shop, getting them familiar with the basic mechanics of trucks and how they handle, then putting them through CDL (Commercial Drivers License) courses.

“I think if I can train them in here, working on brakes, changing oil, that sort of thing, let them learn about trucks in here, then when they get old enough to drive they’ll know what they’re doing,” he said. “I’ve sat around and thought about this, and it will cost me. It would be kind of a school, really, where they could learn all the aspects of a commercial vehicle. That way, I think I can get younger people into the trucking end.”

Photo by Michael Kelly Mark Barber does a walk-around on his rig at the I-77 rest area in Williamstown Thursday before hitting the road again on his way to Canton. A driver and trainer for Melton Truck Lines of Tulsa, Okla., Barber has been a trucker for 28 years and said he likes the job.

There are obstructions for young people who want to become drivers.

Although drivers who work within Ohio can start at 18 years old, federal regulations mandate that interstate drivers be at least 21 years old. Insurability is another issue — Rorbaugh said his insurance requires a minimum age of 23.

The company runs 25 to 35 trucks a day, he said, and could operate more if the drivers were available. He does his recruiting mainly through word of mouth and highlighting the firm’s attractions: an insurance and safety record that has won awards, and clean, modern trucks and equipment.

“In this day and age, if there is a fellow who wants a job and he’s old enough to drive, there’s something wrong with him if he’s not working,” Rorbaugh said.

Owens is manager of Drayer Trucking in Beverly. The company has about 20 trucks, dump-bed units that mainly haul ore, scrap and alloy. On a given day, he said, five or six of them are parked even though work is available.

“We’ve got empty trucks sitting around because we can’t find anyone to put in them,” he said. “We’ve offered more money, but we even have a hard time finding drivers for local runs.”

Many potential drivers are dissuaded from entering the profession by the prospect of long hauls and many days away from home on the road, so local hauls — those for which a driver can show up at work, put in a day and go home at night — are considered premium jobs.

Owens has been in the business since 1994 and, with the exception of one year, can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a driver shortage, but the current one is the worst, he said. In addition, the oil and gas industry is busy now and offers wages that ordinary trucking companies can’t compete with, he said.

Insurance also is an element, he said — he can’t hire anyone with less than two years’ experience, which eliminates anyone fresh out of driving school.

“We could certainly expand if we had drivers,” he said. “The work’s there, but there’s just this tremendous shortage of drivers.”

Even those who choose trucking as a career often don’t stay with it. The profession covers a wide range of variations, from driving gravel trucks and water trucks on local runs to driving long-haul routes in big rigs across international borders. Students who graduate from commercial driving schools often aren’t prepared for the jobs they get, and experienced truckers can easily move from one firm to another if they are dissatisfied with working conditions or pay. Turnover rate for large truckload carriers, according to a survey done by Stay Metrics, a national retention firm, hit 94 percent in the first quarter of 2018.

The Washington County Career Center adult education division last year decided to take action after hearing from local employers about the dampening effect the shortage was having on business. The center began offering a commercial driver’s license and truck driving training course in June.

“The state puts out a list of high-demand jobs regularly, and truckers have been at the top of that list continuously for several years,” Anthony Huffman, director of adult technical training at the center said Thursday. Checking current listings on ohiomeansjobs.com, the state job and recruitment website, he said there were 3,883 postings by companies seeking truck drivers, most of them probably looking for more than one, possibly several, drivers.

The industry, he said, influences nearly every aspect of our economy — there are few goods that haven’t been moved at some point or another by truck.

The career center is offering a 160-hour course that can be completed in four weeks for full-time students, and the same course is offered on weekends for people who want to take it while working at another job. The weekend course takes eight weeks of 10-hour days Saturdays and Sundays.

Huffman said about 25 students have gone through the course, which offers an instructor-student ratio of about three to one, given students plenty of individual attention. The center was able to acquire modern equipment for training through a federal grant split with Hocking College, he said, and the teachers have experience ranging from 20 to 40 years of driving.

“We’re a very good-value, accredited program,” he said.

Grants to cover part or all of the tuition, which is $3,995, are available for students who have incomes of 200 percent of the federal poverty rate or less, Huffman said. Basic requirements for entry into the course include passing a drug test, a general physical exam and absence of color-blindness — the placards identifying load contents on trucks are color coded.

Derrick Lemley, industrial and custom training manager at the center, said students who have signed up for the course range across all ages and demographics. “From 21-year-old men to a 62-year-old woman,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what demographic to expect, but it seems to be just about everybody.”

It’s a career opportunity that’s available to nearly anyone, and it’s a quick way to start a new profession, he said.

“You can start this career and make money right away,” he said. “Truckers can make 51 cents a mile, $65,000 a year for people who are willing to be away from home. For those who don’t want to be away from home, you can start at $19 to $22 an hour.”

Information on the course is available by calling the career center.

On Thursday afternoon, Mark Barber walked around his rig parked at the West Virginia Welcome Center rest area on I-77 in Williamstown, checking the chains and straps holding his load, two brand new tracked Caterpillar backhoes before setting out for his destination, Canton.

Barber, 59, said he started driving after he came out of the Navy 28 years ago.

“I needed a job, I was just out of the military,” he said. “Things have changed a lot since then. When I started, they just gave me the keys and told me to find a truck out in the lot.”

Barber now works for the Tulsa, Okla., firm of Melton Trucking and acts as a trainer for new drivers. New drivers with CDLs who hire on with Melton need to spend 21 days with a training driver like him before they’re allowed to go solo, he said.

Much of drivers’ experiences in the industry depends on the company they work for, he said, and he’s happy with Melton.

“I like the work, I like the company — some of them, I’m sorry to say, just aren’t that professional,” he said. “It’s good pay, good benefits, and it’s nice to know if something happens, they’ll take care of me.”

The drawbacks, he said, are that even though it’s not particularly hard work, it can be stressful, and it’s hard on family life, although he knows husband-and-wife driving teams who enjoy it.

Barber, who lives in Oklahoma City, said he’s single.

“You need to know how to balance your time, getting places, and watch your fuel consumption,” he said. “But I’ve seen places I thought I’d never see. I like to look at the positive, enjoyable side.”

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Truck Driving Highlights

* Demand for workers: National shortage of more than 60,000 drivers, expected to increase to more than 250,000 by 2026

* Pay: Ranges from $20 an hour for local work to $65,000 and more a year for long haul drivers

* Time required to go through Commercial Drivers License training at Washington County Career Center: 160 hours

* Qualifications to enter training: Drug test, physical, color blindness test

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington County Career Center

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