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Gas prices, economy ease shortage of truckers

As the cost of diesel fuel soars and the economy slows, hundreds of small to mid-sized trucking outfits are folding — leaving legions of trained drivers looking for work.
Trucker Surplus
These days it costs upward of $1,100 to fill up a big rig with a pair of tanks that hold 250 gallons. That's up from about $700 last year.Mike Groll / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Bob Lingyak's job is a lot easier these days.

As head of recruiting at trucking company Gypsum Express, for years Lingyak had to take what he could get when it came to long-haul drivers amid a shortage of workers qualified to handle the big rigs and willing to spend weeks on the road.

But as the cost of diesel fuel soars and the economy slows, hundreds of small to mid-sized trucking outfits are folding — leaving legions of trained drivers looking for work.

"It's turned around quite a bit," Lingyak said. "It used to be the drivers who could pick and choose. Now we can pick and choose."

Trucking companies have long lamented what they say has been a chronic shortage of long-haul — or over-the-road — drivers. A 2005 analysis by Global Insight estimated that by 2014 the industry will fall about 111,000 drivers short of the 1.7 million expected to be needed to keep the nation's long-haul freight moving.

Analysts blame an aging driver work force and difficulty attracting people to take on a job that requires them to be away from home for long stretches. The core demographic group that provides more than half of big-rig drivers — middle-aged white men — also is shrinking, compounding the problem over the long term.

But in the short term, the labor crunch appears to have eased.

Soaring diesel prices — which nationally are averaging $4.69 a gallon compared with $2.79 last year — and increased price competition among trucking companies are running thousands of the nation's 18-wheelers off the road.

These days it costs upward of $1,100 to fill up a big rig with a pair of tanks that hold 250 gallons. That's up from about $700 last year.

Truckers have protested rising fuel prices at the U.S. Capitol and elsewhere, urging Congress to end large oil company subsidies and release fuel from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, among other things.

Although truckers can recoup much of the higher fuel costs through surcharges that are adjusted as diesel prices rise and fall, sharply rising prices can cause serious cash flow problems for some, said Donald Broughton, transportation industry analyst at the investment firm Avondale Partners.

Carriers typically aren't paid for their deliveries until well after they're made, leaving the trucking companies — or individual owner-operators — carrying hefty out-of-pocket expenses for six weeks or more, Broughton said.

During the first three months of this year, 935 trucking companies filed for bankruptcy, according to Avondale Partners research. That's the highest failure rate seen since the economic slump of the early 2000s, Broughton said.

Broughton estimates that more than 42,000 long-haul trucks — roughly 2 percent of the nation's fleet of about 2 million — were idled during the quarter.

The large number of long-haul trucks that have been taken off the road is only one part of what's making it easier for long-haul trucking companies to find drivers. A softening economy with fewer jobs in construction and other industries that truckers might work in also is helping, Broughton said.

"There's a segment of the blue-collar population that sees driving a truck over the road as a last resort," he said.

For companies like Gypsum — which operates 560 trucks from its base in central New York and has terminals in seven states — the suddenly deeper labor pool has enabled managers to be more selective when it comes to hiring new drivers and to more closely scrutinize those who are already on board.

"I'm not just looking for steering-wheel holders any more," Lingyak said.

Instead, the company is looking for seasoned drivers who understand the mechanics of big trucks and can drive them in a fuel-efficient way.

"If we have one driver that makes six miles a gallon and another that makes three, we're going to give it to the driver that makes six," he said.

Steve Wadhams — co-owner of Wadhams Enterprises in Baldwinsville, N.Y. — said his outfit had been running eight or nine drivers short in its 100-truck long-haul fleet, but it cut 15 trucks from that division in April and ended up letting some drivers go.

"We've had less pressure as far as driver recruiting goes," Wadhams said. "The economy falling off has really made a lot more drivers available."

Though the current economic climate has helped narrow the gap, it hasn't solved the driver shortage problem, said Rob Reich, vice president of driver recruiting at Schneider National, a Green Bay, Wis.-based trucking company that employs some 15,000 drivers.

Although it has been easier to hire drivers lately, the company's turnover rate remains at around 60 percent, Reich said.

To keep their trucks rolling, Schneider and other large trucking companies offer training programs for new drivers. Lately, though, Schneider has been filling its seats with more drivers who already have a year or more experience behind the wheel, Reich said.

"In the past 12 months, we've seen the number of experienced drivers hired surge," he said. "It's gone from 40 or 50 a week to about triple that."

Kelly Anderson, a consultant who advises trucking companies on how to attract drivers, said many have shifted their focus away from recruitment.

"There isn't what I'd call a driver glut, but right now a lot of the carriers aren't having to look at recruiting real hard because many are reducing the size of their fleets," he said.

Despite the recent rise in the number of available drivers, the trucking industry is still facing a long-term challenge when it comes to keeping qualified drivers behind the wheels of big rigs, said Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations, an industry trade group whose members include FedEx Corp., UPS Inc. and Con-way Inc.

There are always going to be ebbs and flows, but the underlying trends that have caused the labor crunch in recent years are unchanged, he said.

"The demographics are still working against us, and when freight volumes pick up (the problem) is going to come back with a vengeance," he said.