Trucking troubles
Industry suffering severe shortage of drivers

By JoAnn Petaschnick - Special to The Freeman

Feb. 27, 2018

 Skyler Freinann cruises around the course while instructor John Knoblauch sits shotgun in a Waukesha County Technical College semi-truck driving course.
Kenny Yoo/Special to The Freeman

PEWAUKEE — The trucking industry in southeast Wisconsin and around the U.S. needs more drivers. The shortage of commercial truck drivers is number one on the American Transportation Research Institute’s 2017 list of industry concerns. Couple that with an economy that relies on truck transportation for delivery of about 70 percent of all goods, and you have a looming dilemma the industry is struggling to address.

On the bright side, “If you are a qualified driver, you will have no trouble getting a job,” said Neil Kedzie, president of the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association. The downside is that “Nationwide, over the next decade, we’ll need 90,000 new drivers per year just to meet the demand.”

Not only is the shortage due to a lack of new hires, but a large number of drivers are reaching retirement age. “As an industry our median age is higher than the national average. We lose more drivers to attrition than any other reason,” Kedzie said. The median age of over-the-road truck drivers is 49, while the median for all U.S. workers is 42.

Laufer Trucking in Hartford has 27 dry van (not refrigerated) and flatbed trucks and operates around the Midwest. “Our trucks are full, and because the economy is good, we are waiting for additional trucks that we have on order,” said Krista Laufer. When those trucks are delivered, they will need more drivers, she said.

Helping to meet the driver gap are technical schools like Waukesha County Technical College with its Truck Driving CDL Class A program, which can produce 120 to 190 graduates a year. “The past couple of years, we have had 160 graduates,” said Jeff Kiel, a WCTC instructor. “The program is offered days, nights or weekends, and we have a 97 percent completion rate. Most of our graduates have found jobs,” he said.

In fact, insurance carriers prefer it when trucking companies hire technical school grads versus those who are self-taught or who take another training path, Kiel said. “The competencies will only become more difficult, but our school already has such high standards, we will only have to adjust a few things,” he said.

Laufer has hired drivers from WCTC and has been happy with them. “When you get a driver that graduated from WCTC, insurance companies are happy because it is such a high-quality program,” she said.

 Juan Covarrubias takes on a icy road simulation in a Waukesha County
Technical College semi-truck driving course.
Kenny Yoo/Special to The Freeman

‘A well-paid middle-class job’

Laufer acknowledges that being a truck driver isn’t for everyone. “It’s a lifestyle. It has unusual hours, and every day can be different. I think it can put people off,” she said. “We have a lot of younger men drivers that have a family. The hours can make it difficult to be home for children’s activities. That makes the job less appealing,” she said. People may be holding on to an outdated view of truck driving, Kiel said. “Compensation is increasing, and drivers don’t have to go over the road to earn a good income. It’s a well-paid middle-class job. And women are getting involved, too,” he said.

Companies like Laufer are focused on driver retention, offering better pay and vacation time, and other benefits. “When it comes to scheduling, we try to be as flexible as possible. We try to limit the time our drivers spend on the road to 2 to 3 nights a week and get them home on the weekends,” she said.

Kedzie agrees. “The industry is adapting, trying to design shorter hauls and hubs located closer for drivers to change off. We’re also looking at intermodal methods such as transferring to ship, rail or air. We’re putting more emphasis on finding better ways to ship,” he said.

 Students in the Waukesha County Technical College semi-truck driving course are
thrown into all types of scenarios.
Kenny Yoo/Special to The Freeman

Laws restricting younger drivers

Another issue causing headaches for the industry is legislation that won’t allow a driver under 21 years old to run interstate routes. “An 18-year-old can drive from Milwaukee to Bayfield, which is about a 700-mile round trip, but they can’t drive the 90 miles to Chicago. Safety is a factor, but these laws are 30 years old and need to be reviewed. No studies have been done for some time,” Kedzie said.

Legislation has been introduced to establish such a study in a pilot program that would allow 18 to 21-year-olds to operate commercial vehicles across state lines if they meet certain conditions. “I believe as our lawmakers become more keenly aware of these issues, we will resolve them,” Kedzie said.