Behind the wheel: Trucking firms cope with driver shortage

By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer
Jim Ward is the president of D.M. Bowman Trucking in Williamsport, Md.

Jim Ward smiles when he talks about business these days.

“Business is pretty good,” said Ward, president and chief executive officer of D.M. Bowman Inc. “Last year was a respectable year, 2015 was a very good year, and this year is even a little better than last year.”

Bowman, based in Williamsport, Md., employs nearly 500 truck drivers and provides logistics through a swath of the nation east of the Mississippi River. Businesses need “the right products at the right place at the right time at the right price,” he said, and Bowman and its competitors vie to provide that service.

“We want to grow,” he added, and the major challenge to that growth is the same for many similar companies.

“The big constraint to our industry for expansion right now is really the labor force. … We could literally put in place and work every day, at a full-time level, 30 to 40 driver associates right now,” Ward said.

In their first year, a typical Bowman driver might make $38,000 to $42,000, Ward added.

Trucking companies like Bowman, training facilities like the Commercial Vehicle Transportation program at Hagerstown Community College and business consultants are all working to put drivers into those positions.

By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer
Harry Seville of Mercersburg, Pa., fills a truck with fuel at the newly renovated filling station at D.M. Bowman Trucking in Williamsport, Md. Seville has been a professional tractor-trailer driver for more than 40 years, 29 of them with Bowman. As the baby boom generation begins to retire, trucking companies like Bowman are struggling to find drivers.

‘The problem is bigger’

Going into this year, the nation faced a shortage of 100,000 truck drivers. And that number is expected to reach 160,000 by 2022, according to figures tracked by Becky Willard, owner of Beacon Grace consulting firm.

Willard said there are several reasons for the shortfall. Drivers in the baby boom generation are retiring, and fewer trained and qualified drivers are in the pipeline.

The industry also is plagued by high turnover rates. Meanwhile, the lifestyle of a trucker on the road, sometimes far from home with irregular hours, is off-putting to some, she said.

“I think the problem is bigger than what is being reported,” she said.

Some estimates don’t fully account for the impact of e-commerce, Willard said. Consider that Wal-Mart’s e-commerce sales rose by 63 percent in the first quarter of 2017, and that Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods in June could lead to more online sales of groceries.

The expansion of the Port of Baltimore, announced in May, will bring a need for more local and regional drivers, she said.

Federal regulations also figure into Willard’s calculations. Later this year, she said, the next phase of electronic logging requirements will shift into gear. The aim is to promote safety by making sure truckers take their mandated breaks from driving and do not work beyond their hours limit.

Starting Dec. 18, paper logs and logging software will no longer be allowed. Instead, truckers will be using automatic onboard recording devices or registered electronic logging devices, she said.

Full compliance with the new regulations — which require the use of certified, registered electronic logging devices —goes into effect Dec. 16, 2019.

Willard predicts that it will be harder for some drivers to switch to the new digital logging systems. She also anticipates that it will be difficult for some small companies to buy the equipment, noting that many of the country’s trucking companies are small operations.

“I suspect there will be a lot of people who have waited until the last minute. … I wonder at what point we’re going to start seeing fewer of the small trucking companies?” she said.

Technology might offer a long-range answer in the form of self-driving or autonomous vehicles. But Ward and Willard said those devices remain far down the road from replacing human drivers.

‘They’re going to work’

A big part of Mike Stevenson’s job is putting new drivers behind the steering wheels of those big rigs. He’s the Commercial Vehicle Transportation program coordinator at Hagerstown Community College, and he said jobs are available for virtually everyone who completes the course.

“If they want to work, they’re going to work,” he said. “The only ones who don’t go to work are the ones who disqualify themselves.”

Washington County residents pay $3,400 to go through the program, he said. The numbers are $4,300 for Maryland residents from other counties and $5,300 for out-of-state residents.

“There’s all kinds of financial aid available,” he said, adding that some companies reimburse their drivers for the cost.

It takes 7 1/2 weeks to complete the 40-hour-a-week class and 15 weeks for the weekend option, he said. At the end, a student can test for the commercial driver’s license.

“We’re going to make sure you leave here with a CDL,” he said.

Students must pass a drug screen to get into the program, Stevenson said, noting that the industry has a zero-tolerance policy for violations. They’re also warned about challenges they’ll face by spending their working hours on the road.

“It’s all about lifestyle,” he said. “Those trucks have sleepers for a reason.”

‘A good neighbor’

Back at Bowman’s terminal near Williamsport, Ward said that the top three concerns people have about a driving career are “lifestyle, lifestyle and lifestyle.”

So Bowman is doing what it can to address those issues — with the employees and their families — and to hire people Ward consistently refers to as “professional driver associates.”

The company employs full-time drivers, he said, but it also has a cadre of part-time pros who make other runs. Some Bowman drivers have retired from their first careers and picked up trucking as a second profession. And more women are entering the ranks, he said.

About 60 percent of Bowman drivers have assignments that take them out and back each day, although the starting and ending times can be fluid depending upon the customers’ timeframes, he said.

When they’re behind the wheel, he said, a driver will find that Bowman’s semi-tractors have automatic transmissions, lane departure warning devices, adaptive cruise control and anti-rollover devices.

“It’s about like getting into a Cadillac Escalade,” he said with a laugh.

Those tractors are already equipped with electronic logging devices. Ward said adopting the technology has been good for the drivers and the company. It’s helped drivers comply within regulations, he said, and it’s made the company a better planner of routes and schedules.

“It’s up to us to place you effectively,” he said. For drivers, he said, that can lead to more predictable hours at home.

“You can still have a reasonable life being a professional driving associate,” he said.

Ward stressed that the equipment investment isn’t all about serving drivers and meeting regulations.

The company’s mission statement puts safety first.

“We need to be a good neighbor on our nation’s highways,” he said.