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Trucking industry wrestles with labor shortage

LAKE MILTON, Ohio – Bob Blocksom, an 87-year-old former insurance salesman, needs a job. He hasn’t saved enough money for his retirement. And trucking companies, desperate for workers, are willing to give him one.

Age didn’t matter, they said. If Blocksom could get his “CDL” – commercial driver’s license – they would hire him for a $50,000 job. One even offered to pay his tuition for driver training school, but there was a catch: Blocksom had to commit to driving an 18-wheel truck all over America for a year.

So far, that has been too big of an ask for Blocksom, who doesn’t want to spend long stretches of time away from his wife of 60 years. “The more I think about it, it would be tough to be on the road Monday through Friday,” he said.

As the nation grapples with a historically low level of unemployment, trucking companies are doing what economists have said firms need to do to attract and retain workers: They’re hiking pay significantly, offering bonuses and even recruiting people they previously wouldn’t have considered.

But it’s not working. The industry reports a growing labor shortage – 63,000 open positions this year, a number expected to more than double in coming years – that could have wide-ranging effects on the American economy.

Nearly every item sold in America touches a truck at some point, which explains why the challenges facing the industry, including trucking companies rapidly raising prices as they raise wages. Already, delivery delays are common, and businesses such as Amazon, General Mills and Tyson Foods are raising prices as they pass higher transportation costs along to consumers.

Technology leaders hold out driverless trucks as a solution, but industry insiders say that is many years away. For now the industry simply can’t find a way to move goods as fast and as cheaply as they have in the past. This logjam will be especially perilous, economists say, if competition for truckers pushes up prices so quickly that the country faces uncontrolled inflation, which can easily lead to a recession.

“This is slowing down the economy already,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group. “If it takes me a week instead of two days to ship products from Point A to B, I’m losing potential business.”

There’s only one option right now for most trucking companies: Give substantial raises. Recruiters are offering jobs that pay $60,000 to $70,000, with full benefits and a $4,000 signing bonus.

But trucking remains one of the most dangerous careers in America. There were over 1,000 fatalities among motor vehicle operators in 2016, according to the U.S. Labor Department, meaning being a commercial driver is nearly eight times as deadly as being a law enforcement officer.

Trucking jobs require people to leave their families for weeks at a time and live in a small “cabin” with a hard bed. Divorces are common, veteran drivers say.

The industry struggles to hold on to drivers. Turnover in the trucking industry has skyrocketed to 94 percent, according to the American Trucking Associations, meaning most drivers at the major trucking companies don’t spend more than a year in their jobs.

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