Eric Schwartzberg
Hamilton JournalNews

Truck driving jobs are among the fastest growing occupations in the nation, but fewer people have commercial driver’s licenses, and transportation companies are struggling to attract qualified drivers, according to a Hamilton JournalNews/Middletown Journal analysis.

The U.S. trucking industry is expected to create more than 330,000 jobs by the end of the decade, but experts predict the shortage of drivers could almost reach 240,000 in the next 10 years because of industry growth, retirements, recent regulations and competition from other sources.

Trucking firms are scrambling to attract new drivers and to retain their current employees by offering bonuses, pay incentives and better working conditions. But life on the road can be a hard sell.

“Many of our members say they’ve got trucks, they’ve got freight, but they’ve got no drivers,” said David Bartosic, spokesman with the Ohio Trucking Association.

Between 2010 and 2020, employment opportunities for drivers of heavy and tractor-trailer trucks are expected to grow to 1.93 million jobs from 1.6 million, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s employment projections.

During that period, the trucking industry is expected to create more jobs than all but seven other occupations. Those occupations include registered nurses (711,900 additional jobs), retail sales workers (706,800 jobs), home health aides (706,300 jobs), personal care aides (607,000 jobs) and office and other clerks (489,500).

The median annual wage of truck drivers was about $37,770 in 2010, the third-highest compensation among the top 10 fastest-growing occupations, according to labor department data.

Only registered nurses and post-secondary teachers had higher median annual wages, which were, $64,690 and $45,690, respectively.

But the middle-class pay and growing labor demand is not sufficiently increasing the supply of drivers.

The number of people with commercial driver’s licenses dipped last year across the state, according to data from the Ohio Department of Motor Vehicles. It was the first time in at least a decade that the number of Ohioans with commercial driver’s licenses dropped. Employment in transportation and trucking industries has also fallen this year in Ohio, according to labor department data.

At the current rate, the gap between the number of available tractor-trailer drivers and the U.S. labor demand is expected to widen to 239,000 people by 2022, according to an analysis by the Virginia-based American Trucking Associations.

The shortage of drivers is connected to the impending retirement of many current drivers, said Bartosic, with the Ohio Trucking Association. Freight tonnage also is on the rise as the economy rebounds, increasing the need for additional drivers, he said. Some drivers are leaving the industry in search of easier or better-paying work. And the December 2010 launch of the federal Compliance Safety Accountability program resulted in stricter requirements and regulations on drivers and freight companies.

The American Trucking Associations estimates that about 7 percent of drivers would create scoring problems through the federal safety-compliance program, which means they could lose their jobs or companies may be reluctant to hire them.

Truck drivers also work long hours and the job can be physically demanding. Truckers often have to be away from their homes for long periods of time.

But the pay is good, and some drivers can earn between $40,000 to $60,000 if they stick with the job, said Donald Banks, training manager of the Ohio Business College Truck Driving Academy in Madison Twp.

Demands of the job are getting easier because of new regulations and companies are improving their work conditions in order to attract and retain employees, he said. Companies also continue to provide signing bonuses, raises and other incentives to drivers to avoid turnover and lure new drivers.

“The job’s a lot more regional than it used to be, and it’s a lot more driver friendly, because they used to just throw you the keys and you’d go to work,” he said. “Now we are a regulated industry, and drivers get home more often than they did.”

Banks said trucking jobs often appeal to older workers who need a new career. Many students who enroll in trucking school were laid off from the manufacturing sector, and the average age of enrolled students is about 54, he said.

Many laid off workers are eligible for financial assistance to pay for school through the Workforce Investment Act. Part of the appeal of enrolling is that students are basically guaranteed a job if they graduate and pass the state certification test, Banks said.

“Every student who passes the state test has a job lined up through us,” he said.

Industry experts said trucking firms must raise wages and improve their operations to attract and retain drivers.

Truck drivers must be at least 21, but firms can establish relationships with young people at community colleges and other venues to get them interested in the careers.

In an attempt to address both the driver shortage and high unemployment among military veterans, federal lawmakers passed new legislation that will allow military service members to transfer commercial driver’s licenses they obtain while stationed in other states.

By law, commercial driver’s licenses procured in other states are non-transferable. The new legislation exempts military members.

Dennis Weber of Lairson Trucking in Hamilton, said the biggest problem facing small carriers with 100 trucks or less is having drivers recruited by larger companies.