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Driver Shortage Spurs Free Trucking Schools

2013-07-09 10:26:11

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There are 25,000 open trucking positions across the country and not enough qualified people to fill them, according to the American Trucking Association.

Despite unemployment hovering above 7 percent, Americans aren't rushing to join the legions of drivers hauling loads across the land.

The driver shortage has lingered over the industry for the past few years, and as baby boomers continue to retire and the demand for products rises, the Bureau of Labor estimates truck drivers will see an employment growth of 21 percent by 2020.

Clearly, a crisis looms.

The trucking industry has responded, and companies are using reimbursement programs or free schooling to attract people to operate their rigs. And they are reaching out to veterans.

"The shortage is here to stay, and it's going to get worse," said Bob Costello, the chief economist for the American Trucking Association.

The average yearly salary for a truck driver is around $40,000.

Reimbursement programs are common among companies that hire new drivers, Costello said, but it's less common for companies to create their own schools to train drivers for free.

While reimbursements have been going on for the last decade, "there's more companies doing it now," Costello said, in addition to wage increases and sign-on bonuses.

The need for truck drivers in Western New York has always been "steady," said Lisa Tucker, the director of Buffalo's National Tractor Trailer School.

The school has had consistent enrollment and boasts a high job-placement rate. A recent survey of a class of 157 graduates found 90 percent had jobs in the industry, said Tucker, who has been at the school for 22 years.

Kenneth Spikes, a student at the school who also serves in the Marine Corps Reserves, has experienced the demand for truckers. The longest time he has waited for a response after putting in an application to drive was three days.

"I don't know of any other job out there that's like that," he said.

Spikes, who has done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has six job offers from companies, all offering to reimburse at least some of the money he spent on training.

Some companies, including Schneider National and Werner Enterprises, offer "apprenticeship programs" that allow those who have served to draw on their veterans' educational benefits as pay. It's usually $1,200 per month on top of the normal salary of the respective company.

Shannon Wiepert, who served in the Army for almost 23 years and is now employed by Con-Way Freight, sees truck driving as a way for those who served in the military, which "often involved some sort of driving," to move their skill sets into civilian life.

About 30 percent of NTTS's student body, including at its Liverpool, N.Y., location, are veterans, according the school's co-founder and veteran Harry Kowalchyk. More than 2,700 of Con-way's 21,000 employees are veterans.

Wiepert is a recent graduate of Con-Way's in-house training program. Con-Way launched the free program, which now has 87 operating schools, in March 2010 and has one operating locally at its City of Tonawanda terminal.

"We wanted to be on the front edge of the driver shortage," said Brett Thompson, a Con-Way service center manager.

In the Buffalo area, there are about 100 Con-Way drivers, Thompson said. Twenty-five of those drivers will retire in the next 10 years. That 25 percent loss mimics what's happening throughout the industry, he said.

He said when Con-Way hires experienced drivers "off the street," the company has a retention rate of about 40 percent. With "home-grown" drivers trained at their schools, the retention rate is about 90 percent.

Tucker, who runs the trucker school in Buffalo, pointed out that retention has always been an issue with trucking, because the long hours and time away from home is challenging.

"It's not a new job," Tucker said. "It's a new lifestyle."

Con-Way's program is 12 weeks long and combines schooling with working on company docks so students can earn a living wage while getting trained. Salary following the program, which requires drivers to sign a year-long contract, is $45,000 to $55,000. Drivers who do overnight shifts make higher salaries, Thompson said.

NTTS has a series of educational courses that can range from four weeks to 24 weeks, depending on the desires and the needs of the student. Shorter programs cost around $5,000, and longer ones go up to $9,000.

Trucking companies like H.O. Wolding will pay eligible entry-level drivers $200 a month for a maximum of $10,000 to cover tuition costs.