Kansas City, MO – Freight traffic is up smartly, from three years ago. The recession then triggered a horrible bloodletting in the trucking industry. Now it's struggling to bounce back to meet resurgent demand. Noel Perry, an analyst with FTR Consulting, says trucking companies are short about 125,000 drivers, workers they could, in theory, draw from the ranks of the hard-core unemployed.
"What's unique about this one is that truck driving is not skilled labor. This is one of the few places where there's a shortage of the hard to employ kind of worker," says Perry.
Driving for Con-way Truckload, down in Joplin, for instance, didn't use to be an entry level job --minimum 2 years recent experience-- but Bert Johnson, the guy in charge of hiring there, says the company's digging deeper now.
"There is a shortage, there is definitely a shortage. And we see it on the recruiting side, simply because we have to supplement our recruiting efforts with students, " Johnson says.
He says half their new hires are students, like Cory Dockery.
Dockery, 39, is finishing up truck driver training at the Fort Scott Community College truck driving school in Kansas City, Kansas.
"I looked on the internet and that's all you basically seen work, driving jobs, and I guess working in the health care field. I really didn't want to be a nurse, and I figured truck driving would be a better fit for me," says Dockery.
Dockery has worked only sporadically for years, doing seasonal work at the IRS, but he says he's confident of landing a job in his new chosen field.
"And I never thought, in my wildest mind that I would ever be a truck driver, you know. But, the way times is changing now, you have to find something that's going to be steady and permanent," he says.
But a lot of people who go into trucking, pop right back out again, according to Todd Spencer, Executive Vice President of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
"Trucking is an industry that goes through people like oats go through a horse," says Spencer.
And her ought to know, he used to be a trucker, and still looks like one. He says the "driver shortage" is a myth.
"It's not a shortage, the problem is retention. And you won't be able to keep good people, if you don't pay them comparatively, for the demands that you ask," he says.
Long haul truckers can make more than $50,000 a year, but that's before expenses. And think about it, they work, and live, in a space the size of a largish office cubical, for weeks on end. They sleep night after night in truck stop parking lots get paid only for the miles they drive, and see their families only as work permits.
Bob Costello, with the American Trucking Associations says the scrutiny has never been higher.
"If you are a new driver to this industry, you had better be on your game every day. Because, once you get a record You got in an accident, and it was your fault, you're going to be fired, and it's going to be very difficult to find another job in the industry," says Costello.
Drivers are dinged for everything from flat tires to fudged records. The government now tracks it all closely and scores each driver and company. Coming regulations will likely trim the maximum work day, and force truckers with serious health problems to get off the road. The average age for drivers is pushing 50.
All this means fewer experienced truckers behind the wheel, as demand for them mounts. Bert Johnson, at Con-way, says the industry is starting to respond.
" Pay is going up a little bit, but in the grand scheme of things, we're paying people about the same we did years ago. That's going to change, though," says Johnson.
Johnson says companies are also adding benefits, even rejiggering logistics, to get drivers home more often. Because just about everyone in the industry agrees, good, safe, coconscious truckers, are totally in the driver's seat these days.