Drivers wanted! Rise in freight drives trucker demand

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The website of Universal Transportation Services says it pretty clearly: “Drivers Wanted!!”

But the Minnesota-based trucking company, which has operations in Detroit, Minneapolis, Omaha and Chicago, can’t seem to find them – even in a tough economy that has the nation’s unemployment rate nearing 10 percent.

“It has become very difficult to find reliable and competent drivers to haul freight in today’s market,” the company’s website says.

Trucking industry representatives in Minnesota say the labor shortage was caused in part by the recession. Unable to find work, many truck drivers became discouraged and found work outside the industry, said John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association.

Increased freight shipments in recent months also have trucking companies competing for a limited pool of drivers.

Hausladen said that in March, one of his members received 70 applications for an open driving position. In August, a similar position only brought in four applicants.

truck1.JPGUniversal Transportation president and owner and Public Insight Network source Brent Bois said the recession hit his company. Before the recession, they were running an average of 95 trucks a day. In February 2009, their lowest point, they were down to 45 trucks, less than half of their previous business.

But starting in March, companies were starting to want more freight delivered. Bois said shipments are back to pre-recession levels. His fleet of 75 trucks has been so busy that he’s looking for more drivers to take on some of that load. Bois said his company could be handling 30 percent more business if they had the truck power.

Another contributing factor is a new set of safety standards adopted by the federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration. The new, more stringent rules have made trucking companies more picky and Hausladen said this is discouraging some drivers from applying.

Minnesota is one of nine pilot states who are using these new federal guidelines, which will be implemented nationally in November.

Under previous federal regulations, when drivers received violations, the companies would be assessed points and the driver’s would not be penalized. Under the new rules, violations committed by drivers will follow them no matter who they are working for. If companies or drivers have enough points against them, federal authorities will assess fines.

Companies like Bois’ are looking for drivers who will be able to meet the new safety standards. Increasingly they’re turning to truck driving programs like the one at Southeastern Technical College in Winona, where a new group of students, usually numbering between 18 and 30, starts the 16-week certification course every eight weeks.

gierok.JPGTom Gierok, a veteran truck driver and instructor who still hauls freight during the summers and weekends, said it was tough to place students in jobs last year. But this year, he said, the college is “close to 100 percent placement after certification.”

That’s made truck driving an attractive option for those who are retraining for new jobs after losing their old ones.

Gierok’s students, who range in age from 18 to 70, can leave after eight weeks of classes and an eight-week internship. First year drivers can earn between $37,000 to $45,000 a year and their salaries will go up as they gain more driving hours.

Gierok, Bois and Hausladen all see trucking as a good economic indicator. With 68 percent of goods transported by truck, Hausladen said, “If you got it, a truck brought it.”

What other economic indicators are you keeping an eye on? Tell us what you’re seeing here.

Photos courtesy Brent Bois, Tom Gierok