Truck drivers in short supply

A lack of interest in the profession, coupled with new industry regulations that have made hiring difficult, has resulted in a shortage of truck drivers across the nation and in Grays Harbor.

Numbers from the state Employment Security Department indicate a commercial driver’s license — known as a CDL — is one of the most sought-after qualifications in Grays Harbor County. Based on department numbers, online want ads for workers with a CDL showed up 47 times between June and September in Grays Harbor. Out of the 25 most in-demand certifications, those numbers ranked a CDL at No. 4, behind certified registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and those with cardiopulmonary resuscitation certification.

Galen McGinnis, operations manager at Trailer Services, a trucking company in Aberdeen, said, “The issue of a shortage of truck drivers on Grays Harbor is real. It’s been in effect noticeably for the last 20 years and it’s been acute in the last 10. The number of people who choose truck driving as a profession are aging and-or retiring.”

Mike Kelly, dean of workforce education at Grays Harbor College, said most of the drivers he sees come through the College’s CDL program are in their 30s or 40s.

McGinnis also points out that new regulations put forth by the federal government makes hiring drivers harder. In 2010, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration established the Compliance, Safety and Accountability (CSA) initiative, which set out to improve large truck safety and reduce crashes, but also made it harder for trucking companies to acquire new workers.

Through the initiative, drivers are given report cards that can accrue points if they violate certain safety regulations. Lane-change violations, speeding infractions, driving while talking on a cellphone or texting and driving are all ways to tack on points to a driver’s CSA report card. If a driver commits a driving infraction and only receives a warning, the incident will still be added to his CSA point score.

If a driver accrues a high-enough point value, the company he or she works for will fall into alert status and will be audited by the federal program.

“Seasoned truck drivers with CDLs are in a catch-22 with the CSA — they have the license and experience, but we don’t want to employ them because if we do employ them, our insurance carrier, as well as the federal program, is going to ask why we did,” he said.

LaDonna Scott, a driver herself and an instructor at the truck driving program at Grays Harbor College, shared McGinnis’ sentiment.

“Regulations have gotten really strict. You might have drivers come in with good abstracts but their CSAs are bad,” she said. Scott added that there is even a CSA requirement that mandates drivers over a certain body mass index take part in a sleep study to measure their physical health.

Another problem: People aren’t looking for jobs in the trucking industry because they don’t let them have much time at home with their families. “You become a nomad in effect,” McGinnis said.

“Drivers usually don’t have 9-5 jobs; they’re working 14 hours a day. It’s not for everybody to do that,” Scott said.

In trying to address the driver shortage, Trailer Services has partnered with GHC in an attempt to hire drivers straight from the college program, a 15-week course that gives students 375 hours of training. In the past, insurance companies have wanted truck companies to hire drivers that already have a couple of years of experience. With the new partnership, Trailer Services trains drivers and then lets them take the road on their own, giving insurers confidence they will be able safely transport goods.

“We’re essentially waiving a two-year requirement of verifiable work background; we’re not circumventing anything, we’re trying to accelerate it. We’re a strong advocate of the college’s program. I think they’re doing an incredible job,” said McGinnis.

McGinnis thinks incorporating some sort of trucking curriculum at the high school level would be a good way to attract young prospective drivers as well. Scott said she goes to Aberdeen High School once a year to talk to students about what the program at GHC offers.

Scott and McGinnis think compensation is another big issue. Statistics from the Employment Security Department show that the average annual wage for a heavy truck driver in Grays Harbor County was $34,541 as of March 2013.

McGinnis said higher wages will likely be a solution to the driver shortage.

“The problem is probably going to be answered over time by compensation. ... In the early ’70s, for driving positions in Grays Harbor, many of the drivers lived quite well and enjoyed a standard of living that was pretty high relative to what they were doing. At some juncture, and I can’t pinpoint it, that changed,” he said.

Scott believes drivers deserve more money. “The pay is OK, but it could be a little better for the sacrifices you make,” she said.