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Downturn puts trucking firms in driver’s seat

Trucking companies aren’t exactly booming, but they are holding their own, and many are benefiting from the availability of more high-quality job candidates.
Redding California News - January 29, 2009
Rick Kingsley, right, goes over a pre-drive check of a big rig with Kyle Ballard at American Truck School in Antioch, Calif. Kingsley lost his job as a retail manager in Sacramento before taking up trucking.Andreas Fuhrmann / Redding Record Searchlight via Z

Two months ago, Todd Smith of Metropolis, Ill., had never been in the cab of a semi rig.  Now it is his office and his home away from home.

Smith got laid off for the winter from his job as a concrete worker, leaving his family to survive the season on just one income. Adding that to the rigors of pouring concrete as he ages, Smith went back to school. Last month, he graduated from the truck driver training program at Shawnee Community College in Ullin.

“I’ve been out of school now for 20-some-odd years and never dreamed I’d come back to school for this or anything else, for that matter,” Smith said.

For Smith and thousands of other Americans, 18 wheels is the new look of a weekly paycheck. With companies slashing jobs across the country, trucking companies aren’t exactly booming, but they are holding their own, and many say they are looking to grow.

“The economy is bad, but it’s not as bad as some of the news organizations would have you believe,” said Lance Hillman, president and chief executive of Fort Edward Express Co. Inc. of Fort Edward, N.Y., which hauls petroleum and cement over much of the Northeast.

Fort Edward needs workers, Hillman said: “We could put people to work tomorrow if they’re qualified.”

Bad economy boosts trucking
If it seems counterintuitive that long-haul trucking would remain relatively healthy during a deep recession, there’s a wild card: timing.

Because about 80 percent of U.S. industry relies on trucks to move its most basic building blocks from Point A to Point B, the nation’s estimated 1.8 million long-haul truck drivers are especially sensitive to the state of the economy. In fact, they’re usually at the leading edge of economic booms and busts.

Last year was the worst for the trucking industry since 2001 as 3,065 trucking companies of all sizes went under, accroding to Avondale Partners, an investment banking firm. Trucking bankruptcies skyrocketed during the first three quarters of 2008 but then began slowing dramatically as efficiencies from industry consolidation and lower diesel prices “kept many marginally successful fleets in business,” the firm concluded in a report.

Now, things are beginning to look up for the industry — precisely because the bad economy led to consolidation in the industry, said Tom Wadewitz, a transportation analyst for J.P. Morgan.

For the past several years, the industry has suffered from a deep shortage of drivers. That’s because “being a driver is a hard job,” said Hillman of Fort Edward Express. “It’s not a cushy, sit-inside, keep-your-hands-clean job.”

So while demand has shrunk with the contraction of the industry in the past year, the industry still has tens of thousands of available jobs, especially for long-haul drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations, the industry’s trade group. And with the national unemployment rate at a 25-year high of 8.1 percent, there are plenty of applicants.

“I can’t remember the last time I had to run an ad” for a driver, said Tom Davis, fleet manager at Firstfleet Inc., a hauler of consumer goods based in Jamestown, N.C.

Job inquiries at the company have increased by 40 percent to 50 percent since November, Davis said. He has even received applications from drivers who were let go from NASCAR teams.

Firms pick from ‘cream of the crop’
Paul Doyle, president of the Professional Driver Institute in Rochester, N.Y., said training classes are packed. The institute’s full certification program for a commercial driver’s license can cost as much as $5,000, but faced with finding a job for the first time in years, many recently laid-off professionals aren’t blinking.

“We get white collar, blue collar,” he said. “Many have come from your Kodaks and your Xeroxes — all different types of socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Many of the newest drivers have college degrees and professional or management experience, and companies are “picking the cream of the crop,” said Ken Bons, vice president of Eagle Training Services, a trucking school in Rockford, Ill.

Lately, Bons said, Eagle has even seen doctors and lawyers go through its program.

“We tell everyone who comes in [that] if they’ve had a questionable past, they only have a 10 or 15 percent chance we can find you a job,” he said.

At D.M. Bowman Inc., which hauls goods across the mid-Atlantic from its base in Hagerstown, Md., executives have been able to cut recruitment advertising by 60 percent, said Gary Kelley, the company’s vice president of driver services.

“In the 32 years that I’ve been recruiting truck drivers, this is a most unusual time,” Kelley said. “This is a time when we — the trucking company itself — [are] in the driver’s seat for being able to hire people.”

Bill Graves, president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, said that bodes well for the trucking industry.

“Like many other industries, trucking is experiencing a very difficult time during the current economic recession,” Graves acknowledged.

But looking at recent trends, he said, “all signs point to a strong, vital, long-term future for our industry.”