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As trucking grows, companies fear driver shortages

ST. PAUL -- Victoria Kronz was inspired to become a truck driver by her father, who still drives today. "I used to ride along with him," Kronz said. "One day we were on vacation. ... My father put me in that driver's seat, and I knew that's what ...

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ST. PAUL - Victoria Kronz was inspired to become a truck driver by her father, who still drives today.

“I used to ride along with him,” Kronz said. “One day we were on vacation. ... My father put me in that driver’s seat, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Kronz has been driving trucks since she was 21 years old. Now 29, she is an owner-operator truck driver with Dart Transit.
She said she loves the openness of the road, not having a boss looking over her shoulder every day, getting to wear what she likes to work and getting paid to travel. But she also acknowledges the time it takes away from her family.
And while it’s right for Kronz, it’s that compromise, that combination of job and lifestyle, that means trucking is not for everyone.
Despite industry growth - or perhaps because of it - trucking companies are struggling to retain and attract drivers.
The American Trucking Association says the industry is short by about 48,000 drivers nationwide because many are aging out of the profession just as the economy is growing.
“If the economy moves forward at all, that growth in product needing to be moved, combined with a shrinking driver pool, creates the perfect storm for the driver shortage,” said Darin Heinemeyer, recruiting director at Koch Trucking Inc. in Minneapolis.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects openings nationally for heavy-duty and tractor-trailer drivers to increase 11 percent between 2012 and 2022. The trucking association expects the industry to be short about 175,000 drivers by 2024.
Many skilled truckers left the profession during the last recession and aren’t coming back, said Russ Moore, vice president of safety and driver recruiting at Dart Transit in Eagan.
And fewer people are pursuing it as a career.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Trucking Association says businesses in 68 percent of Minnesota communities depend exclusively on commercial trucks to bring in or ship out their products - meaning no railroad access and very little freight moving by river.

‘Like I’m Santa’s elf’

But it's not just businesses that rely on trucks. Every time you go to a grocery store or mall to buy food, clothes, electronics or toilet paper, those products are available because a truck driver brought them there.

Kronz said this is why her job is so rewarding.

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"Some days I feel like I'm Santa's elf bringing the toys for Christmas time, I'm the Easter bunny's helper bringing eggs and chocolate to the stores, I'm the bartender bringing the alcohol. We are secretaries doing paperwork, navigation specialists, customer service, and we do extra training to help ensure our driving skills are safe," Kronz said.

Heinemeyer said Koch Trucking, with a fleet of over 800, will see about 10 percent growth in fleet size this year. He said some of their divisions are fully staffed, some have a few openings -- and some are wide-open.

"We could accommodate 100 more drivers across our system right now," Heinemeyer said.

Yet despite the shortage, people in the industry say numerous roadblocks exist to prevent people from becoming truckers.

For one thing, federal regulations say commercial drivers have to be over 21 years old, and many trucking companies require some years of experience on top of that.

Obtaining a commercial truck driver's license depends on a person's driving record, criminal history and ability to pass a physical exam. But Bob Collins, owner of Interstate Truck Driving School in South St. Paul, said that even if all these qualifications have been met, Minnesota state regulations make it difficult to get an appointment to take an actual road test.

He said it can take up to six weeks for a driver fresh out of training school to get a road test scheduled in Minnesota. And if that person fails the road test, it may take another six weeks until the second exam. Throughout this delay, drivers often remain unemployed and spend more money on a training school to maintain their skill level -- or find other jobs.

Calling younger drivers

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Heinemeyer said the federal age limit means the industry loses many potential drivers who might want to enter the profession right out of high school. Between the ages of 18 and the legal commercial driving age of 21, if they're not going to college, these people are finding other jobs. He said even if it was someone's dream to drive a truck, it's unlikely they will leave their current job after three years of experience out of high school.

So this leaves the industry looking to older drivers.

Most companies, including Koch Trucking, require at least one year of road experience before they hire a driver.

Heinemeyer said the industry would like to see a modified commercial driver's license that would allow drivers under 21 to operate a truck between three states, with limitations on geography and hours of work during the day.

Kristin Ries, communications manager at Dart Transit, said Dart hopes to target the younger generation by speaking at high schools and scout troops to get students thinking about how products get on the shelves. Dart Transit also brings a big rig to the school and allows students to take a look at the truck. Ries said these are just baby steps toward getting in front of the millennial generation.

But Collins suggests it isn't such a smart move to allow drivers as young as 18 to operate commercial trucks. Collins used to teach high school driver's education and said the skill it takes to drive a truck can be easily mastered by an 18-year-old, but it's the lifestyle of an 18-year-old that worries him.

"The trucking industry is an industry for sober people," Collins said. "People 18 to 21 tend to experiment with chemicals, including alcohol. You can't party on the weekend and drive a truck safely Monday morning."

And Heinemeyer said the younger generation is not interested in the lifestyle of a trucker -- driving for two weeks at a time, showering in truck stops, eating fast-food meals and being away from family.

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While pay is increasing, the job in many ways becomes a lifestyle commitment for drivers and their families.

Kronz drives an average of 600 miles per day and said one of the challenges of the job is that under inconvenient circumstances, like if a driver is sick, the freight still has to get moved on time.

Higher pay, better conditions

The industry's recruiting and retention challenges have prompted some changes.

For one thing, driver pay has increased across the board, said Ries.

Also, split shifts, more comfortable rides and state-of-the-art equipment are ways in which the industry is changing. For example, the oldest truck Koch Trucking has on the road is a 2014 model, and Dart Transit has implemented a seat suspension technology called Bose Ride into their trucks to make the driver more comfortable on the road.

The annual mean wage nationally for material-moving workers was $37,840 in May 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But at Dart Transit and other companies, drivers can now expect a starting salary above $40,000 a year.

Trucking companies are sweetening things with sign-on bonuses and tuition reimbursement. Dart Transit provides up to $6,000 to help pay for a driver's training school, while Koch Trucking provides up to $7,500 for reimbursement.

But Collins said wages need to increase even more to attract more people. He hopes to see annual wages go as high as $100,000 for truck drivers.

"Drivers should be paid accordingly for transporting important goods and for keeping the roads safe. When wages go up, it will take care of itself," Collins said.

Of course, paying truckers more means trucking companies would have to charge more, and shippers would pass these costs onto receivers; these costs get baked into the product, and ultimately, it's the consumer who ends up paying more in the store.

Bob Biesterfeld, newly named president of North American surface transportation for Eden Prairie-based C.H. Robinson, a freight logistics company, said that as the shortage of drivers increases, that's only going to have a bigger impact on shippers. He said that at a certain point, a company must be willing to pay more to make sure its goods get moved.

Over the long term, Biesterfeld said, truck load rates have increased a couple percent per year, but it is difficult to isolate one reason why. Wages and the availability of drivers are just part of the equation; other factors include the health of the economy, cost of capital, bankruptcies within carriers, fuel costs and government regulations.

So who is driving?

According to Collins, it's just as rare to see truck drivers in their young 20s as it is to see someone in their 70s. But it does happen.

Like the nature of the job, the people in it tend to be transient. Some are working their way up. Most of the drivers in their 20s and 30s are "just trying to set themselves up financially and plan to leave for another industry once settled," Collins said.

Others are moving in. Collins said most drivers are entering the industry from other professions, such as construction or IT, and go into trucking as an alternative to a low-paying job, often after being laid off or retiring.

It's not usually one's dream job, Collins acknowledges.

But Kronz is the exception and says she loves it.

"It takes a special type of person to do this amazing job," she said. "Someone who doesn't get angry easily. A person who's willing to sacrifice their family time, to be willing to go over and beyond the normal 40-hour workweek."

Kronz is usually on the road for three months at a time and said it is difficult being away from her family for so long. She has a 10-year-old daughter who lives in Alabama.

However, Kronz said she knows a lot of women currently truck driving who are able to make it home to see their kids weekly or bi-weekly.

Still, "I'm not made for being a factory worker and being told every second to do this now or you'll be fired or talk this way or dress like this," Kronz said. "I'm not one to take orders. I hate that I'm that way, but that's what I love about truck driving. I'm able to be me."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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