Countless Jobs, Few Takers
Trucking’s famously tough conditions don’t compute to a new generation.
Ben Matanane uses hand signals to communicate with a driver on the truck range at Wallace State Community College.
On the one hand, the seemingly bottomless pit of vacancies for truck driving jobs is hard to fathom in Alabama, where the unemployment rate has remained stubbornly behind improving national numbers. In mid-April there were 3,700 truck driving jobs open in Alabama, with an average salary of $71,963, according to the popular job website Indeed.
On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with the numbers. Nationally, the truck driver shortage is generally pegged at 50,000 drivers, with the situation set to get worse as veteran truckers retire. The Alabama Department of Labor consistently shows tractor-trailer drivers and registered nurses to be among the most common vacancies atop its online jobs database: joblink.alabama.gov. The state estimates that truck drivers earn a mean wage of $20.11 per hour, though compensation tends to be calculated by miles covered on the road.
The state’s estimate works out to an annual salary just north of $40,000, probably a realistic number for first-year drivers, according to Wallace State Community College CDL Instructor/Examiner Ben Matanane.
Matanane, 58, teaches Wallace State’s Commercial Drivers License program in Cullman County. He’s a military veteran who has been teaching truck driving since 2010. All of the fledgling drivers who come through his course, four students at a time for the six-week program, will face a tough breaking-in period when they start driving for commercial companies, he says.
Among the challenges are living away from home most nights and sleeping in the walk-in-closet-sized space behind the driver’s seat of their tractor cab. Long hours behind the wheel, along with occasional long waits to pick up or drop off trailers. And like all working scenarios, there’s a pecking order.
“You always start at the bottom,” Matanane tells his students, some of whom are still in their teens. Others may be middle-aged and facing a change of situation, dictating a new career. The demand for drivers is definitely there, he says.
“Older truck drivers are starting to retire, leaving a lot of vacancies, and the younger generation has got to fill in. The economy is getting back on its feet, and lots of things need to move back and forth. They’re moved by truck. Even the stuff that travels by train will eventually have to move out of the depot,” he says.
As for trucking’s difficulties, the situation is improving, Matanane says.
“The trucks are a lot better, more livable, and the pay is getting better. If they work with their dispatcher, they can usually get the days off they need.”
Thanks to the school’s more one-on-one approach, compared to larger trucking schools, most of his students are still driving and liking it. That’s not always the norm. The American Trucking Association estimates that up to half of all new drivers are at risk of leaving trucking after six months.
“It’s difficult for the really younger ones, but at age 25 and above, they adapt pretty well,” Matanane says. “They’re mature, they understand it’s a way of life, and they make the best of it. It’s what you make it. If you’re motivated, you’ll get somewhere.”
Some of the things that making trucking tough on the new generation stem from modern technology, a far cry from “Smokey and The Bandit” days, according to trucking industry attorney David Williams.
Williams, 36, a Birmingham resident and senior attorney with the Atlanta-based law firm Swift Currie, has defended trucking companies and their drivers in a broad range of civil lawsuits. Typically his clients will be sued over highway accidents involving personal injury or property damage. As TV commercials and roadside billboards suggest, suing truckers has become a brisk business.
Trucking is a hard job that has become more dangerous with the huge uptick in distracted drivers on the road, Williams says.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that truck drivers have to worry about people texting and talking on phones, and that combined with just more traffic on the road in general, I think people just aren’t as willing to be truck drivers,” he says. But technology has also helped truckers in some ways. Electronic logs have replaced paperwork, and apps such as Facetime and Skype have made it possible for drivers to attend school plays and birthday parties, even when they’re on the road.
Trucking companies are working hard to appeal to young people, and good wages have to be a part of the equation, Williams says. “Getting to the mindset of the younger generation, there’s a lot more options for people now. The idea of working that hard, that long, isn’t as enticing to some as it used to be.”
Truckers and the companies that employ them must also run an obstacle course of regulations placed on the industry by the federal government. John Henry, vice president of safety at Cullman-based My-Way Transportation Inc., says his hires must have three years of over-the-road experience, no more than one accident in two years and very few traffic violations.
“There are plenty of licensed drivers, but we want qualified drivers. One accident can end the whole company, so we want the best quality drivers out there,” he says.
My-Way Transportation runs 70 trucks, 90 percent of which are vans, with 5 percent flatbeds and 5 percent “reefers” or refrigerated trailers. The company just added a 60,000-square-foot warehouse for cross docking and load diversification.
“We’ve got the lowest turnover rate in the state, at 8 percent, when quite often other companies are dealing with 100 percent turnover. We know our folks by their name, not by their truck number,” Henry says.
While associations representing truckers note that the industry’s pay seldom matches its difficult conditions, Henry says his company is proud of its pay scale.
“We have a leasing program where drivers can becoming independent contractors working with us. We’ve got newer equipment. These guys can make between fifteen hundred to thirty-five hundred a week, and that’s huge money, especially for somebody who maybe only graduated high school. It’s enough to create a better future for their children.”
Dave Helms is a copy editor with Business Alabama. Cary Norton is a Birmingham-based freelancer.