Michael Lee has been living on the road since 1993.
The 63-year-old trucker from Willmar goes by "Gypsy Lee," and he's busy. Christmas Day he was hauling a trailer full of lubricant to windswept oil country near Williston, N.D. Then on to Chicago.
"I don't have a home anymore," he said. "I live in the truck."
These days, there's plenty of work for anyone willing to live the life of a long-haul trucker. A trade group that represents the largest carriers says they need up to 25,000 drivers to sign up today.
Longtime drivers are retiring, and shipping demand is growing. Yet it's not easy to find people willing to embrace the solitude and separation from family that comes with driving a semitrailer truck across the country for a living.
Long-haul truckers spend weeks on the road. They sleep in their cabs or strange beds, shower in truck stops, and miss graduations and birthdays.
"It is the least-desirable of all trucking jobs," said Richard Hawkins, director of corporate transportation at Dakota County Technical College, which had to close its truck driving school because students don't want to pay up to $5,000 for the training.
The American Trucking Association (ATA), which represents the big carriers, said in November that the need for drivers is "acute" and that "long-term trends could cause the shortage to explode in the next decade." The association sees 100,000 jobs opening each year for the next decade due to retirement and turnover.
Learn to drive a truck on the back 40, and you can get a license and probably find work, though many companies require two years of experience or a certificate from an accredited driving school. The certificate generally takes 160 hours of training and costs up to $5,000.
"We're able to get jobs to anybody who completes our program, obtains a commercial driving license and wants to work in the industry," said Velvet Walker, who manages Century College's transportation program in Afton.
Trucker pay averaged $19.83 per hour in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, compensation depends on mileage, and companies structure pay in different ways. Paychecks depend on weather, traffic and quick weigh-station visits.
Drivers get to see Utah's sunsets, cypress trees in north Florida and the autumn leaves of New England, but they live alone for weeks and even months. The pay is not keeping up with inflation, and turnover is rampant.
Just like manufacturers, who also complain of a labor shortage, trucking companies are not paying more for drivers. From 2007 to 2011, the pay for heavy-truck drivers rose 51 cents in the United States, according to the bureau.
Take inflation into account, and that was a 3 percent pay cut. In Minnesota, pay for heavy-truck drivers actually fell from 2007 to 2012, from a median of $18.22 per hour to $17.
Roy Olds, 48, of Dubuque, Iowa, drives a rig that delivers cars. He thinks the ATA's numbers are bogus, an attempt to perpetuate a myth of a trucker shortage when the reality is that big companies can't retain drivers because they don't pay enough.
Olds works for himself.
"They want to fill seats," he said during a stop at Stockmen's Truck Stop in South St. Paul. "They're hiring people with no experience, and then they're cycling through them."
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a trade group often at odds with the ATA, agrees with Olds. "If there were truly a shortage, then companies would be raising pay," said Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the association.
A difficult life
The clientele at Stockmen's has been getting more diverse in the past few years. Immigrants from Russia, Iceland, Australia, Mexico, Ireland and Somalia stop for a meal and a nap.
Brook Habte, 41, who grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was working under the hood of his truck last week as snow started to fall in the parking lot.
His destination was Springfield, Ill., and he had a truckload of cheese. From Springfield he was scheduled to carry dairy products to Pennsylvania.
All the talk about a good-paying career in trucking feels hollow to him after six years owning his own rig, trying to rack up miles to make payments on the truck, getting fined for driving too much, and always worrying about lights burning out or points against his license.
If he weren't still paying off the truck, he says he'd take a $12 per hour job at a factory and piece together part-time work on the side.
"If you see how much we're taking home, we're making $30,000 per year," he said. "It's all a gimmick."
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz