Image: A Werner Enterprises truck
Nati Harnik  /  AP
A Werner Enterprises truck travels on Interstate 680 west of Omaha, Neb. There’s been a lot of hype about jobs in the trucking industry lately, but exaggerations about a so called ‘growing field’ where there are ample, easy-to-land jobs with lucrative paychecks can cause hardships for people who are desperate for work.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/11/2011 10:04:58 AM ET 2011-04-11T14:04:58

Freedom of the road. Endless job opportunities. Big paychecks.

There’s been a lot of hype about jobs in the trucking industry lately, but it’s time for a reality check. In this economy, exaggerations about a so called “growing field” where there are ample, easy-to-land jobs with lucrative paychecks can cause hardships for people who are desperate for work.

Take Aaron Archer, 46, of Garden Grove, Calif.

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The trucking school Archer attended in 2007 assured him he’d be able to get a job driving a truck locally, but the only jobs he has found since leaving the school are long-haul jobs, also known as “over the road” gigs, or OTRs.

“I could have a job if I were willing to work for slave wages as an OTR trucker,” Archer said. “In school they said I could drive locally, which was misleading,” he added, noting that it is possible to drive locally, but only after one or two years of experience as an OTR trucker.

Ronnie P. from New York — who didn’t want his full named used because he doesn’t want anything to jeopardize his search — would take any trucking job he’s offered. He received his commercial driver’s license, known as a CDL, last May and has been unable to find work since, even though he’s “tried and tried.” One company even said they wouldn’t hire him because he had a moving violation on his regular driver’s license from many years back.

While the trucking industry, hit hard by The Great Recession, is beginning to show signs of life, good jobs in the profession are still can be hard to come by. And if you do get a job expect to pay your dues and start at the bottom with low pay (as little at $25,000 starting out) and endure tough working conditions, including weeks on the road. Median pay for all truck drivers (regardless of experience) is $38,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many people believe in the illusion that they can simply go out and drive a truck, and that’s going to make them big bucks, said Michael Belzer, an economics professor at Wayne State University, a former truck driver and author of Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation.

As for the actual work for long-haul jobs — the bulk of gigs in the male-dominated profession — many drivers sleep in their trucks to save money, and many end up eating unhealthy foods on the road.

“McDonald’s is cheap, and then you’ll be sitting in the truck,” he explained. “There’s a high propensity for obesity.”

Despite the challenges, many laid-off Americans are looking for jobs in the industry just to make ends meet, and the recent flurry of media reports that say trucking jobs are plentiful is driving even more job seekers in that direction.

Gregg Aversa, president and CEO of The Sage Corp. — which has 32 truck driving schools around the country including 15 in community college and technical school — has seen a 20 percent spike in applications this year.

But many of the interested individuals, many of whom have been laid off from other industries, can’t afford the tuition, Aversa said. The five-week program costs about $5,000 and that includes a physical and a drug-screening test. The fee also includes life-time placement services for graduates, Aversa noted, adding that, “our placement rate is in the high 90th percentile.”

The growth rate of the industry going forward isn’t much better than other fields.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects average growth rates for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers and below average increases for light or delivery services truck drivers through 2018. And even the industry’s trade group played down claims made by a host of media outlets in recent months that the industry has tons of jobs to fill.

“Today’s shortage is more of a quality than a quantity issue,” said Bob Costello, chief economist with the American Trucking Association. He said he recently talked to one of the association’s member who told him he has 100 jobs to fill, but 800 applications.

“He’s being very selective,” Costello said, because of new federal safety regulations and the fact that accidents cost truck companies more money in the long run.

Indeed, applicants with any spots on their driving records, health issues, or any brushes with the law have the hardest time finding positions. But it’s not unlike the hill many of today’s jobless workers have to climb in other professions since there are 13.6 million people unemployed and employers can afford to be as picky as they like.

“There are plenty of drivers who are out there and who are ready to go to work,” said Allen Smith, who writes the AskTheTrucker.com blog. He said claims of a shortage of drivers are “a self-made problem created by the industry itself. They create this image of a shortage to keep wages down for drivers.”

Many trucking companies disagree.

Kevin Burch, president of Jet Express Inc., a company that transports parts for the auto industry, said he sees a “perfect storm” brewing in the trucking industry.

“We saw the storm coming a year and a half ago,” he explained. “We have an aging workforce and as an industry we’ve done a poor job getting people interested in our industry and getting younger drivers involved in our industry.”

He said he has 12 to 15 driver positions open right now and is offering a $1,000 signing bonus to those new hires that stay for at least 90 days.

Nicole Mitchell, president of M7, a company in Omaha, Neb., that specializes in transporting organic commodities nationwide, said there’s a particular need for drivers in agricultural-related products.

It used to be that transportation was a family business, but now the kids of trucking families are going to college and going onto “bigger and better things out there,” she explained.

Mitchell also believes new trucking regulations haven’t helped matters because they limit the pool of job candidates.

“Now with these drivers, you get a moving violation and that's going to make you a higher risk for someone to hire you.”

And job seekers who have some sort of medical condition may find it hard to land a job.

David Fraunberger graduated from driving school in October and believes he’s been unable to find work because he has Type 2 Diabetes. Unlike many other jobs, a driving position requires a physical exam, and even though he has a government waiver that shows his diabetes is under control with insulin employers still won’t give him a chance.

“It takes six months to get a waiver and after that I took a seven-week course and it went downhill from there,” he said.

Even truckers with no medical or driving issues and years of past experience are finding it hard to get back in the game.

Richard Smith of Miamisburg, Ohio, started out as a truck driver at age 23 and drove for ten years until he decided to try something new in 2004. He entered another growth field, health care, and began delivering medical equipment such as oxygen tanks, but found the work physically demanding and decided to return to trucking last year.

Smith, 39, took a refresher driving course that cost him $3,000. He has a spotless driving record and a decade of experience, but no trucking firms would hire him because of his time away from the industry. He eventually got a job with Jet, who he had worked for previously, and is now happy to be back on the road.

“On average I’m doing 10- to 12-hour days, five days a week,” he said, and he makes about $600 a week, but he’s home every night. “If it wasn’t for Jet I would have had to go back to paying my dues again,” he said.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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