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Neighbors Growing Together | Jan 18, 2018

Trucking industry sees growing gap in drivers

By Mitchell Schmidt, The Gazette | Dec 20, 2017

CEDAR RAPIDS — Joseph Scherbring was the model of the American truck driver.

Since his first day with Cedar Rapids-based CRST Expedited on Feb. 1, 1971, the Manchester native drove more than five million accident-free miles — 5,201,213, to be exact — across 48 states and Canada.

But after nearly 47 years, Scherbring, accompanied by his wife of 64 years, Katie, retired Monday during a special reception at CRST Expedited headquarters.

Scherbring, 86, is one of a growing number of truck drivers nearing retirement age in an industry already starved for an experienced workforce.

“There’s a lot of drivers who are just now retiring,” said Cameron Holzer, president of CRST Expedited. “It is causing a massive driver shortage in the industry.”

A 2017 American Trucking Associations truck-driver analysis found that the nation’s trucking industry was short about 36,500 drivers last year.

The deficit is expected to reach about 50,000 by the end of this year and, if the trend holds, the shortage will climb to more than 174,000 by 2026, according to the October study.

An aging workforce poses one of the industry’s biggest challenges. The study found the average age for an over-the-road truck driver to be 49, compared to 42 for all U.S. workers.

One of the challenges is that some of the industry’s most senior drivers are reluctant to adapt to new technology.

On the same day Scherbring celebrated his retirement, the early enforcement period began for the federal electronic logging device mandate. That requires drivers to install and use digital devices to track their driving time.

Holzer said the new paperless logging rules likely played a role in Scherbring’s retirement.

“I don’t think it’s (Scherbring’s) age — he is very energetic and full of life and still has a lot of fight left in him, which applaud. I think it’s time because of technology,” Holzer said Monday.

The nationwide truck-driver shortage has ebbed and flowed in recent years.

The 2015 shortfall was about 45,000 drivers, and in 2014 the industry was short about 38,000 drivers, according to the associations’ 2015 report.

Bob Costello, chief economist with American Trucking Associations, said in an October news release that 2016’s freight recession eased the pressure on the industry. But freight volumes are increasing again, which should tighten the need for drivers in the near future.

“In addition to the sheer lack of drivers, fleets are also suffering from a lack of qualified drivers, which amplifies the effects of the shortage on carriers,” Costello said in the release. “This means that even as the shortage numbers fluctuate, it remains a serious concern for our industry, for the supply chain and for the economy at large.”

And while the U.S. workforce is about 47 percent women, they made up only six percent of drivers last year, which industry officials say presents an untapped workforce.

At Kirkwood Community College, the school’s four-week truck-driving course brings in about six students per month. Amy Lasack, senior director of corporate training at the college, said the industry shortage does provide one positive — many available jobs for aspiring drivers.

“There’s a big bubble, a lot of folks getting ready to retire in the next five to 10 years. There’s a lot of opportunity for folks,” she said.

To introduce a younger audience to the industry, Lasack said the Kirkwood course will host a June 23 Rollin Rally, with trucks on site and activities for families and children.

“It’s really about making folks aware — kids that maybe are in middle school now — that the opportunities are out there,” she said.

What’s more, the 2017 study found that driver turnover — which traditionally runs at an elevated rate to the driver shortage — averaged at least 93 percent annually from 2012 to 2015 for for-hire drivers, but dipped to 81 percent in 2016.

With a shortage, drivers are in high demand and can jump from motor carrier to motor carrier, which creates an industry churn, the study states.

To attract new drivers and keep existing employees, businesses must adapt, Costello said in the release.

“While the shortage is a persistent issue in our industry, motor carriers are constantly working to address it,” American Trucking Associations’s Costello said in the release. “We already see fleets raising pay and offering other incentives to attract drivers.”

At CRST Expedited, Holzer said it recently has announced the highest pay increase in the company’s 62 years of operation for its roughly 3,500 drivers.

Holzer said retaining employees is one way to stay ahead of the shortage.

“If I could keep the drivers I have I wouldn’t have to go out and hire more into the industry,” he said. “We’re looking to help people start their career and then stay with CRST and stay in the industry. We want to keep them.”

As for Scherbring, logging more than five million miles over nearly 47 years may sound like a difficult task, but it’s easy when you love the job.

“I enjoy driving,” Scherbring said. “You’ve got to like driving or you’re not going to last.”

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