Scarcity of truck drivers ripples through economy - Albuquerque Journal

Scarcity of truck drivers ripples through economy

Teddy Coombs, 63, says he had trouble finding a job until he got his commercial truck-driving license. He has had five offers, although he has not yet completed his training program at Roadrunner Food Bank. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Teddy Coombs was less than halfway through his commercial truck driving program before he had five job offers, one of which dangled the promise of a $70,000 annual salary.

Coombs had no experience driving an 18-wheeler, but that didn’t stop two of those companies from trying to snap him up anyway.

Coombs, 63, said finding a job at his age had been nearly impossible until he got his commercial truck driving license in December, the first step in a training program he’s taking through Roadrunner Food Bank.

“It was almost stunning,” said Coombs, who is now doing on-the-job training and will graduate from the program in August. “There’s work out there, and people want you. That’s a good feeling.”

It’s a sign of the times in the trucking industry, where a “perfect storm” of economic conditions and a changing workforce has left companies scrambling to find enough drivers, said Kacy Robinson, vice president of operations at J.H. Rose Logistics in Santa Teresa.

Recruitment bonuses, hefty pay hikes and better working conditions are part of the landscape for companies trying to lure drivers to an industry that is seeing baby boomer retirements and a dwindling number of young people interested in a career with long hours and long distances.

And for consumers, that means buckling up and getting ready to pay more for any number of goods because “about 95 percent of everything we consume comes on a truck,” said Johnny Johnson, managing director of the New Mexico Trucking Association.

Driver’s seat vacancies

Trucks move along Interstate 25 behind the TA Travel Center in Albuquerque. Companies are offering hefty pay, recruitment bonuses and other incentives during a scarcity of truck drivers. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Johnson says based on conversations with his association’s 250 members, companies in New Mexico are about 25 percent below the number of truck drivers they need.

Hiremaster, an online recruiting platform for the trucking industry, recently listed nearly 1,000 open positions in the state.

It’s a nationwide problem: The trucking industry reports a total of 63,000 vacancies across the country, a number expected to more than double in coming years.

Those figures are stifling growth, with some businesses saying they could better thrive in a booming economy if they could only hire more drivers.

Royal Jones, president and CEO of Mesilla Valley Transportation in Las Cruces, says his company has increased pay several times, but his roster of 1,500 drivers remains about 150 shy of what he needs. Ideally, he said, “if we had 500 more drivers, we could buy more trucks.”

The shortage is especially acute in the southeastern part of the state, where it’s threatening to slow the Permian Basin drilling boom that has helped lift U.S. oil production to all-time highs.

A bidding war to find qualified drivers means some larger companies are offering pay of more than $100,000 a year, plus bonuses and other incentives.

“It’s hard to find drivers because of the oil boom,” said Tim Squibb, with Brewer Oil Co. of Albuquerque. “We just continue to run ads to try and find drivers.”

Darryl Ashe, who is based in Artesia with his family’s J J Ashe & Sons Trucking, calls the demand “extreme” and says he has trouble competing with the big companies when it comes to luring drivers.

Ashe says he’s unable to hire new employees and is instead scraping by with his current drivers “just to fill the trucks I do have.”

The median annual wage for truck drivers in New Mexico was $40,780 in 2017, according to state figures, but Johnson says truckers are now typically making from “the low $60,000s to high $80,000s,” and in some cases over $100,000.

Even nonprofits with limited budgets are having to up the ante. Roadrunner Food Bank, for example, is looking at 10 to 20 percent pay raises, depending on experience, because it must have enough drivers to serve food banks around the state.

The cost of competing for personnel, along with higher fuel expenses, means companies across the board are boosting their freight rates “anywhere from 25 to 50 percent,” said Robinson, whose logistics company serves as a “middle man” between trucking companies and their customers.

Also fueling the shortage, he said, is a strong national economy that means “there’s a lot of demand for consumer goods. So when people are buying clothes, shoes, there are even more goods to move and less truck drivers.”

The end result inevitably will be higher costs passed on to consumers, although Robinson said it’s hard to quantify how much those will be.

“Everything will cost more – beer, pet food, everything,” he said.

Road’s lure dissipates

A nationwide shortage of truck drivers has left companies scrambling to find enough workers to haul their deliveries. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The picture appears bleak because “the driver force we enjoyed for many years is aging,” Johnson said.

Baby boomers, once drawn by the “lure of the road,” are retiring and younger people are not taking up trucking in the numbers needed to replace them, he said.

Johnson, who just turned 70, said he got into trucking as a young man because “you got to see places you had never seen before. If I wanted to see Mississippi, I had to get into a truck.”

In a highly connected world, trucking no longer carries that kind of attraction, he said.

And with the U.S. unemployment rate at 4 percent, companies are having a hard time competing with jobs that offer easier working conditions or better pay.

The life of a long-distance trucker can be difficult because of long stretches away from home, although some companies are offering “leapfrog runs” in which drivers go only so far before turning the load over to another worker.

“You’re on the road a week or two at a time, using public bathrooms, showers at the truck stop every night,” said Robinson. “Nobody wants the lifestyle.”

Other difficulties facing the industry include finding qualified candidates who can pass a drug test and a high turnover rate as drivers take advantage of ever-higher salary offers. Also, some are driven off by predictions of massive job losses due to the prospect of autonomous trucks.

In New Mexico, an added complication is the state’s limited manufacturing base.

Truckers try to avoid “dead-head miles” in which they are traveling without a load so they might not come into New Mexico until they’re assured there will be a load to haul out after they get here, said Wayne Sonchar, an owner of BTU Block and Concrete and BTU Building Materials in Las Vegas, N.M.

He said while it used to take a week or two to get a driver to pick up a load, now the wait can amount to four or five weeks.

On the road again

Teddy Coombs wheels a pallet of food at the Roadrunner Food Bank warehouse.

Coombs is testament to the difficulty of a trucking life.

Once a long-distance hauler, Coombs was often gone for three-week stretches. “I lost a relationship over it. It’s stressful on family life,” he said.

He let his commercial license lapse long ago as he pursued other ventures. Since then, he’s been laid off from a computer-related job and saw his construction company founder because of the Great Recession.

Now, trucking seems like the surest thing.

“There’s work out there,” he said. “This gives me a guarantee.”

Local programs help train drivers

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