LAKE MILTON, Ohio – Bob Blocksom, an 87-year-old former insurance salesman, needs a job. He hasn’t saved enough for his retirement. And desperate trucking firms are willing to give him one.
Age didn’t matter, they said. If Blocksom could get his CDL — commercial driver’s license — they would hire him for a $50,000 job. One even offered to pay his tuition for driver training school, but there was a catch: Blocksom had to commit to driving an 18-wheel truck all over the United States for a year.
So far, that has been too much to ask for Blocksom, who doesn’t want to spend long stretches of time away from his wife of 60 years. “The more I think about it, it would be tough to be on the road Monday through Friday.”
As the nation grapples with a historically low level of unemployment, trucking companies are doing what economists have said firms need to do to attract and retain workers: They’re hiking pay significantly, offering bonuses and even recruiting people they previously wouldn’t have considered.
But it’s not working. The industry reports a growing labor shortage — 63,000 open positions this year, a number expected to more than double in coming years — that could have a wide-ranging effect on the U.S. economy.
Nearly every item sold in the U.S. touches a truck at some point, which explains why the challenges facing the industry, including trucking companies rapidly raising prices as they raise wages, have special power to affect the entire economy. Already, delivery delays are common, and businesses such as Amazon, General Mills and Tyson Foods are raising prices as they pass higher transportation costs along to consumers. A Walmart executive called rising transportation costs the company’s primary “headwind” on a recent call with investors.
Technology leaders like Elon Musk hold out driverless trucks as a solution, but industry insiders say that is many years away. For now, the industry simply can’t find a way to move goods as fast and as cheaply as they have in the past. This logjam will be especially perilous, economists say, if competition for truckers pushes up prices so quickly that the country faces uncontrolled inflation, which can easily lead to a recession.
“This is slowing down the economy already,” said Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at Bleakley Advisory Group. “If it takes me a week instead of two days to ship products from point A to B, I’m losing potential business.”
At TDDS Technical Institute, an independent trucker school in central Ohio where Blocksom had considered enrolling, veteran teachers say they have never seen it this bad. They think there are closer to 100,000 openings.
“As long as you can get in and out of a truck and pass a physical, a trucking company will take a look at you now,” said Trish Sammons, the job placement coordinator at TDDS, whose desk is full of toy trucks and fliers from the companies who call her daily begging for drivers. “I recently placed someone who served time for manslaughter.”
There’s only one option right now for most trucking companies: Give substantial raises. Recruiters that show up daily at TDDS are offering jobs that pay $60,000 to $70,000, with full benefits and a $4,000 signing bonus.
In interviews with more than 60 trainees, recruiters and people who explored trucking but decided not to take the job, most feel higher pay will help, but the industry’s problems are much deeper than that.
Trucking remains one of the most dangerous professions in the U.S. There were more than 1,000 fatalities among motor vehicle operators in 2016, according to the U.S. Labor Department, meaning being a commercial driver is nearly eight times as deadly as being a law enforcement officer.
“It takes a special breed to be a trucker. It’s a tough job,” said Rick Rathburn Jr., the owner of TDDS, a school his late father started in the early 1970s.
The community around TDDS is full of shuttered factories and bars named “Lucky Inn” and “Horseshoe.” The steel mills closed in the 1980s, and a GM factory just announced more than a thousand layoffs. One of the only industries growing in the area is trucking, yet locals are hesitant to become truckers.
One man, a janitor, hanging out at Larry’s Automotive repair shop in nearby Warren, said his uncles were truckers and told him they would “kill him” if he ever got into the harsh business. The shop owner said he had thought about becoming a trucker but decided it wasn’t feasible after he had children.
Trucking jobs require people to leave their families for weeks at a time and live in a small “cabin” with a hard bed. Divorces are common, veteran drivers say, and their children forget them. Life on the road is often costly and unhealthy. Drivers sit for hours a day in diesel trucks and pull into truck stops that typically serve greasy hot dogs and chili.
Weight gain and heart disease are common, said Gordon Zellers, an Ohio physician who spends half his time examining truckers and administering drug tests, which increasing numbers of CDL applicants fail. He advised the TDDS students to see a nutritionist, but he knows most won’t.
Alex Thomas and Rob Neal are two of the youngest students at TDDS — Thomas is 26 and Neal is 28. As they sat in a truck in the TDDS parking lot practicing, they joked with each other about which one would be the first to develop a “trucker’s belly.”
Thomas and Neal had construction jobs before they enrolled in the 16-week course at TDDS.
Trucking often competes with construction and manufacturing for workers. Both of those industries have been on a hiring spree lately as well, and unlike trucking, construction and factory jobs typically don’t require additional schooling. To get a commercial driver’s license, an applicant needs to attend several weeks of school, which can cost about $7,000 before financial aid.
The two young men who switched into trucking say they’re doing it for the money. But many of their friends were surprised by the move.
“I used to work in a sand and gravel pit. Workers in the pit called the truckers scum,” Thomas said.
As it has trouble recruiting new workers, the industry is also struggling to hold on to drivers. Turnover in the trucking industry has skyrocketed to 94 percent, according to the American Trucking Associations, meaning most drivers at the major trucking companies don’t spend more than a year in their jobs.
People with CDLs suddenly seem as coveted as computer programmers. Trucking company recruiters descend daily on America’s roughly 500 truck driver training schools, according to the Commercial Vehicle Training Association, to fight for new graduates.
“These guys are like diamonds right now,” said Jason Olesh, a vice president at Aim Transportation Solutions who left his family vacation to rush to TDDS to talk to students. “We’re down 90 drivers across our fleet of 650.”
Olesh gave his best pitch to the students: He offered them jobs that pay $70,000 a year with full benefits and regional routes hauling water to oil drilling sites that would have them home most nights.
“I’m offering you a regular job with a 10- to 12-hour shift so you can see your kids,” Olesh said. At the end of his session, a few students gave Olesh their contact information, not enough to even make a dent in the job openings he has.