With Numbers Dwindling, The Trucking Industry Searches For A New Generation Of Drivers

Sep 4, 2018

Credit (Alec Cowan/KLCC)

It’s easy for Oregonians not to think about how their favorite products get to store shelves. But as KLCC’s Alec Cowan reports, a shortage of truck drivers could start affecting everything sold in the United States.

[Truck door opening]

[DAVIS: Go ahead and get in, I'll get in on the other side.]

John Davis has been in the trucking industry for 60 years.

[DAVIS: It's got a good transmission. Now a lot of them today are automatics...]

He’s showing me the spacious cabin of a driver training truck. It’s an old freightliner model, with a nice wood interior….

[DAVIS: An air ride seat, and actually that would be a mattress there, and then this bunk folds down here and that's your double bunk.]

Thinking up the stereotypical trucker isn’t difficult: the big 18 wheeler, exhaust pipes coming up out of the top like horns breathing diesel. But from the time Davis first started, a lot has changed.

DON EDWARDS: “You know, a lot of young men used to teach, it used to be your brother taught you or your dad. It was a generational thing, right?”

This is Don Edwards. He does admissions here at the IITR Truck Driving School in Creswell.

Credit (Alec Cowan/KLCC)

DON EDWARDS: “And that’s how you learned to drive truck back then. And I think we’ve lost that.”

IITR is dealing with an increasingly common problem in the truck driving world: a shortage of truck drivers. The American Trucking Associations say there are more than 50,000 seats that need filling.

DON EDWARDS: “There’s not as many younger men and or women, but mostly men. They just don’t think of this as a viable career you know a career you can support your family on.”

Edwards has worked here for 24 years. Back then the average class size could be around 7 to 9 students. Today it’s close to 3 or 6.

DON EDWARDS: “Well there’s just a lot to driving a tractor trailer. The people that have just driven cars, they don’t know what it’s like being in a big tractor trailer with 80,000 pounds. And automobiles think these trucks can maneuver or stop just like they do, and that’s not the case.”

While numbers have slimmed Edwards says there’s incredible opportunity. They have over a 90 percent job placement rate after graduation. Salaries can run from 17-24 dollars an hour and are continuing to increase. But hooking job hunters with the prospect of trucking is a difficult task.

Credit (IITR Truck Driver School)

DON EDWARDS: “I don’t know, for lack of a better word it’s not like a sexy thing, how do you make this appealing? It is hard, if you’ve got a wife and kids at home, to be away from them.”

JANA JARVIS: “It doesn’t have the prestige that it used to have, I know….”

This is Jana Jarvis, CEO of the Oregon Trucking Association.

JANA JARVIS  “...I’m old enough that when I went away to college and I was driving across the country my father told me that if I had car trouble not to let anyone but a truck driver help me. Because that was someone I could trust and depend on, and I think you see a very different response today.”

Jarvis says the demand comes from several places. She believes a misconception over the industry’s stability is one aspect, as autonomous and self-driving cars gain more popularity. Another factor is an aging workforce: in the next 15-20 years there could be as many as 890,000 drivers needed to replace the existing work force. This is all while what she calls the amazon affect is taking place.

JANA JARVIS: “I think demand for our services has increased dramatically, specifically over the last few years, with the increase in consumer goods and online shopping.”

Jarvis explains the implications of this shortage could be dramatic. Nearly everything sold in the U.S. reaches consumers by truck at some point. Nearly 80 percent of communities in Oregon are only served by truck.

JANA JARVIS: “I often refer to us as the lifeblood of Oregon’s economy, because we’re carrying the goods and commodities that folks need.”

The shortage affects delivery and stocking for companies both big and small. The industry also paid $296 million in federal and state roadway taxes in 2016. Trucks are a big part of infrastructure.

Jarvis says their solution is to get the word out.

JANA JARVIS: “I feel hopeful for the future. But, we got a lot of messaging to do.”

Credit (Alec Cowan/KLCC)

For the driving school in Creswell, there’s no stereotypical trucker. They see a range of students, from college grads to teachers and medical professionals.

[DOOR BELLS JIGGLING WHILE BEING OPENED]

JESSE CROWLEY: “My name is Jesse Crowley….”

Jesse is one of those people looking for a new start.

JESSE CROWLEY: “….I felt like at 46 I’m aging out of being an affective landscaper. So I needed a career that I could do for the rest, potentially for the rest of my working life.”

Crowley says trucking is an opportunity. He feels he can take some time and see the country. Technology like skype and podcasts can help him learn on the road and not feel socially isolated. Even then, trucking can be easier in theory than it is practice.

JESSE CROWLEY: “The actual driving of the big trucks, that’s a different type of learning for me. And it feels like trying to juggle while riding a unicycle. It’s like doing a bunch of new things at the same time. It’s a lot, sort of a steep learning curve, but it doesn’t feel like it will be impossible.”

The course is around five thousand dollars to complete, but it only lasts four weeks. IITR is seeing a lot of enthusiasm from employers who might have requested several years of experience from applicants just a couple years ago. Now some of them are looking for students as soon as they’re finished with their certification.

Two things Crowley can be certain of when he finishes school? A seat to fill and a road to drive.

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