Trucking industry’s needs put job-seekers in the driver’s seat

In much of the country, there is a clear shortage of speedy and direct routes to the middle class.

Yet there remains at least one accessible profession — truck driving — where industry experts see a lack of bodies to fill available seats and collect substantial paychecks.

In a nationwide report last month, the American Trucking Associations estimated a current need for 20,000 to 25,000 big-shipment, long-distance truck drivers. Beyond that, the expected rise in shipping demand coupled with retirements would open up nearly 100,000 new driving jobs in each of the next 10 years, the report said.

“So it’s an opportunity for a lot of people,” said Bob Costello, the report’s author and the trade group’s vice president. “You don’t need a college education. You need to be a safety-conscious, hard-working individual.”

A new long-haul truck driver can generally expect to earn $38,000 to $44,000 before taxes in the first year, according to interviews with trucking company recruiters, industry analysts and training schools. Experienced drivers can earn around $50,000 to $65,000 a year, although much depends on the type of hauling and the number of miles driven.

“Carriers are competing with each other for those individuals who are high-quality truck drivers,” said Walter Heinritzi, executive director of the Michigan Trucking Association. “The demand for freight will continue to increase — that’s pretty much acknowledged — but the number of people choosing to go into trucking has not increased.”

Some trucking companies will reimburse new hires for training school, but usually in monthly increments of $150 to $200. Major specialized schools in the Detroit area, for example, charge about $6,000 for tuition for multi-week training programs.

Lara Dowdy, director and co-founder of Driver Training School in Romulus, Mich., said about a third of the school’s trainees are young people entering trucking as a first career. Others are generally older, middle-age individuals making a career change, including military veterans, ambulance drivers, police officers, nurses and former business owners.

At Suburban, trainees spend their first days in classrooms and on driving simulators before they try maneuvering around orange cones in a parking lot with a real 18-wheeler. By the third week, they are driving local roads with a trainer in their cab. But unlike the driver’s education vehicle most people learned to drive in, there’s no passenger brake pedal in these big rigs.

Tyomni Floyd, 29, of Detroit was in her final days of training earlier this month at Suburban in Romulus. A single mother with two young daughters, Floyd lost her job in July as a care worker for people with disabilities. Her previous work experience had been in fast food. Despite great effort, she had trouble finding work.

“I was looking around and around, and I still couldn’t find anything,” she said.

Floyd’s father was once a truck driver for Chrysler, but she had not seriously considered the profession for herself until she ran into a training school recruiter at a job fair in October.

Newly retired Detroit Public Schools teacher Denise Lavender, 59, of Whitmore Lake, Mich., decided to try trucking for different reasons.

“When I retired I said I’d like to be able to travel and see the countryside, and I think this is a great way to do it and get paid to do it,” Lavender said.

She admits that learning to double-clutch 10-speed and 13-speed transmissions was trickier than she imagined. “Maybe it’s because I’m older now,” Lavender said with a laugh. She finished Suburban’s program this month with a job offer in hand from Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Con-Way Freight.

Industry experts say new drivers often sour to the trucking lifestyle and spending weeks away from home.

“The real story is when people go through those programs, how long do they stay in the trucking business?” asked Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Mike Hinz, vice president of driver recruitment for Wisconsin-based carrier Schneider National, predicts the truck driver shortage will result in a pay increase of 5 percent to 8 percent in the next year and a half. But he cautions against jumping into the profession just because the money is good.

“A lot of times people come into the industry without recognizing just what a challenge it can be,” Hinz said. “It certainly is not just holding onto a steering wheel; there’s a lot of professionalism and maturity that go into it.”

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