Downshifting

The number of active commercial drivers licenses, or CDLs, issued in South Carolina has been slipping in recent years.Period Active CDLsDecember 2012 127,227December 2011 128,774December 2010 129,796November 2009 132,333**December figures not availableSource: S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles

Terry Head recently left his technical support job at a wireless telephone provider to pursue a career on the open road.

The 47-year-old, a student at the North Charleston truck driving school Palmetto Training, is planning to drive tractor-trailers, a gig that’s growing in demand due to a nationwide shortage of qualified operators, industry officials say.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Head said. “I can actually make close to what I was making in previous years and it’s nice benefits, like a 401(k), and more freedom since I’m not behind a desk and having people breathing down my shoulder.”

The trucking industry is on the upswing as the economy is showing signs of improving, but the momentum could be thwarted by a nationwide shortage of qualified drivers to replace a retiring population. Despite the nation’s high unemployment, the shortage stems from problems such as applicants failing background checks and reluctance to be on the road for extended periods, experts say.

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.

The shortage has prompted more truck driving schools to retool promoting the profession. Trucking companies, starving for drivers, are advertising jobs in some unusual places like the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles and upping the ante with higher pay and perks such as signing bonuses, tuition reimbursement and rigs equipped with more bells and whistles, including satellite radio.

A recent survey by industry research firm Transport Capital Partners said trucking companies may be reluctant to accept additional business due to a portion of their rigs sitting idle from a lack of drivers. The firm’s third-quarter report surveyed more than 120 trucking industry officials regarding observations and opinions facing companies, and their outlook for the year ahead.

“Carriers are also unwilling to add capacity when they can’t find drivers to fill the seats. Seventy-five percent of the carriers surveyed are reporting unseated trucks,” according to the report.

Behind the wheel

The problem is evident among several trucking companies throughout the Lowcountry, including H&J Trucking in Charleston.

Owner Keith Johnson has been asking his drivers to keep an eye out for potential new hires, helping him fill six vacancies among his fleet of three dozen rigs.

“It was about this bad several years ago, when the economy was booming and everyone was just shipping, there was a strong need for drivers,” Johnson said. “The difference this time is how there has not been an influx of new younger people, and the older population has decided to retire or change jobs.”

Truck drivers make decent money. The Department of Labor says the median yearly wage for tractor-trailer drivers is $37,770, with some drivers earning more than $57,000.

Experts say older drivers are feeling pressured to retire by federal safety regulations enacted in 2010 that keep a closer watch on drivers’ work hours, drug testing and any tickets or other traffic citations they get on the job. And the job can be hard to sell to younger workers who don’t think it’s worth the money to spend days and weeks on the road away from their families.

The nationwide problem has hit home in South Carolina, which has been steadily shedding active commercial drivers licenses, commonly known as CDLs, for at least the last four years. There were 127,227 active CDL licenses as of Dec. 8, or more than 5,000 fewer than in November 2009, according to the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.

“We’re experiencing a fairly similar situation as other industries and professions and that’s finding people who want to work and are qualified,” said Rick Todd, president of S.C. Trucking Association. “One of our challenges is that it’s not one that requires a college degree, but its barriers of entry into the profession. Our drivers have to be drug- and alcohol-free and they have to pass the physical every two years.”

The Port of Charleston said the shortage hasn’t affected its business, but the State Ports Authority is monitoring the issue, said SPA spokeswoman Allison Skipper.

“The Port of Charleston’s container facilities currently process an average of more than 3,600 truck visits each day with highly productive turn times,” Skipper said. “However, our industry is aware of the need, long term, for workforce continuity, and that involves reaching out to young people and educating them about career opportunities in transportation.”

Recruiting roadblocks

Todd said the industry could benefit from better nurturing, perhaps reaching out to local schools to promote the benefits of the jobs.

A Greenville trucking company recently applied to advertise job openings on DMV’s video loop, which plays in the waiting areas of offices throughout the state, said agency spokeswoman Beth Parks.

Parks added that the trucking company’s advertisement is a rarity for a stream typical for ads peddling window tinting and car repair shops.

Superior Transportation in North Charleston hasn’t turned to DMV ads, but the company did offer a $1,250 signing bonus earlier this year when it was scrambling to find drivers for 11 new rigs, said owner Pat Barber.

“We had to do it to fill the spots and we were not seeing the applicants coming in,” he said.

Barber said he also was forced to look for drivers beyond the usual 70 miles from the company’s headquarters on Hanahan Road. As of last week, the company had one opening.

Aside from the stricter federal regulations, Barber pointed out another recruiting roadblock.

“There’s more congestion on the highway and the roads are not in the condition they were 10 and 20 years ago,” he said. “Our main concern is that we are not seeing younger folks coming into the business.”

Truck drivers don’t need college degrees, but they do need to earn a commercial driver’s license. That can require a month or longer of training that can cost $3,000 or more. That includes weeks of poring through textbooks and hours behind the wheel to master the intricacies of maneuvering rigs.

At Palmetto Training, instructor Caroline Clifton says she’s seen a steady flow of prospective students coming in with hopes of being a truck driver.

Some, however, change their mind when they realize the course includes more than a month of training and that new hires can spend weeks away from family and friends.

“They’re fresh out of school and they may not see family for months,” Clifton said. “If they realize they have to put about a year on the road before they can do local and sometimes that turns people off.”

In addition to trades such as forklift operations and welding, Palmetto Training teaches roughly 100 would-be rig operators annually, which is about on par with previous years, Clifton said. Its marketing has gone to social media such as Facebook.

“We changed marketing off our Facebook page, making it more professional, and the changes I’m hoping is what is keeping us busy,” she said.

Those who make it through the six-week program usually are fielding several job offers from employers, Clifton added.

As of last week, still weeks before his license test in January, Head of North Charleston was fielding offers from three trucking companies. Recently divorced, he said he was weighing the job offers based on per-mile rates and perks such as truck leasing assistance.

“I’m just going to have to find out what is going to work best for me,” he said.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC. MCT/Detroit Free Press and The Associated Press contributed to this report.