How bad is the driver shortage? Bad enough for Wall Street to start calling it one of the biggest potential threats to the current economic boom.
With the country entering a record 107th month of continuous economic expansion, analysts keep wondering how it will continue. Many see the lack of skilled workers as the pin which will eventually burst the balloon. The unemployment rate is currently at 4.1%, the lowest it has been since 1969.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that fleet recruiters desperate for new drivers show up almost daily at places like Cowtown Driver Education School Inc. in Fort Worth, TX to offer ever-higher wages and benefits to graduating students.
The trucking companies "are like a pack of wolves around a dead animal," Tony Seghetti, Cowtown's co-owner told the Journal.
Trucking is suffering because workers once attracted to the relatively good pay find they can get similar wages elsewhere without having to work long hours away from home.
That has prompted fleets such as Frozen Food Express to cut 150 non-driver jobs and cut its trailer fleet by 20%.
Truckers have typically been men aged 20 to 40, usually with backgrounds in mechanics and often with military experience. But the mix is changing in today's tight labor market. There are more women, ex-convicts, ex-pilots and even ex-academics going to truck driving school.
The Journal interviewed Cowtown classmates Rudy Tuggle and Vallie Harris, both atypical driver candidates. Tuggle, a 54-year-old Texan, enrolled in Cowtown after his engine-machine business began to bore him.
He plans to spend most of his first year on the road, though he will keep in touch with friends and his girlfriend through a laptop and a satellite hookup inside his rig.
A friend convinced him to look into trucking. The pay was okay, but Tuggle was most impressed with the creature comforts. Tuggle is likely to get a roomy, new truck with a large sleeper.
Harris, a 36-year-old single mother of four, raised her four children with her wages as a manager for various fast-food outlets before being fired last year after a dispute with her boss. "If you don't make your quota, you're in trouble, but how can you make somebody buy a hamburger?" she told the Journal.
If all goes well, she will graduate from truck driving school next month. "Believe you me, I'll be happy," says Ms. Harris, who says her eyes brightened when recruiters began talking about an initial $36,000 a year in wages. "I'll be outside, on my own, but I'll be on the clock and I'll get paid for it."
In previous economic booms, the increased costs of hiring and keeping employees led to worries about higher prices that could cause an inflationary spiral.
Some economists see the seeds of such a cycle in the trucking business. To attract workers, trucking companies have had to raise pay and add amenities. And truck stops are investing more to allow truckers to communicate and relax.
But higher pay is the biggest draw. SignPost Inc., which surveys driver wages, says about 50 companies out of roughly 250 that it surveyed had raised wages between August and November; with an average increase of 4.4%.
Fuel prices are also climbing, forcing many fleets to increase rates or impose surcharges. The portion of the producer-price index that tracks the truckload industry rose less than 1% last
year, but bigger increases could be on the way.