Lack of qualified drivers keep company growth plans idle

Last updated: August 31. 2014 11:37PM - 3139 Views
By Ron Bartizek Times Leader Correspondent

John Walko, left, a graduate of the LCCC truck driving program, and Harold Fisher, the program coordinator, stand outdside of one of the trucks used at the college.
John Walko, left, a graduate of the LCCC truck driving program, and Harold Fisher, the program coordinator, stand outdside of one of the trucks used at the college.
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• LCCC Professional Truck Driver Program


• American Trucking Association


Editor’s note: Second of a three-part series exploring the Northeastern Pennsylvania job market and options for technical training.

One of the hottest jobs in the otherwise stagnant Scranton/Wilkes-Barre region – where the unemployment rate is the highest among Pennsylvania’s large labor markets – does not require a college degree, pays above average wages and has desperate employers offering sign-on bonuses of $4,000 or more.

That’s because there’s more work available than there are people to do it, said Doug Barbacci, president of Calex Integrated Supply Chain Solutions in Pittston.

“There aren’t enough drivers out there,” he said.

Calex has three divisions, one of them transportation-based, hauling commodities all over the country. To drive a big rig, a person needs only a high school diploma and a few weeks of training, yet there aren’t enough qualified applicants.

“That division is the most labor-constrained,” Barbacci said.

And that has led him to pare back growth plans simply because he’s not confident he can find the needed drivers.

While he has the space and workload to add 20 drivers right now, “if we knew there were more people out there, we could easily increase that dramatically,” he said.

Calex drivers can earn $50,000 plus benefits, Barbacci said, which is about the average in this region and nationally. But it’s by no means the maximum.

John Walko, 48, Kingston, said he’ll earn about $68,000 this year driving for AutoZone, where he also is a trainer. That’s more than twice his highest annual paycheck during more than a dozen years working for local manufacturers.

Continuing challenge

“This is not a regional problem; this is a national problem,” Barbacci said.

The problem is accentuated locally by the gas drilling industry, which requires many driving jobs.

The American Trucking Associations says there is a shortage of 30,000 over-the-road (OTR) drivers, even as the industry is rebounding from the long economic slowdown that began in 2008. It cites time away from home and a lack of interest among young people as contributing to the shortage.

But not all driving jobs mean long days on the road. Walko works four days weekly, leaving AutoZone’s Hazle Township distribution center on Sundays and Wednesdays, usually returning the next day. His delivery route to retail stores ranges from New England to Virginia.

Turnover also is a problem for the industry, particularly in good economic times.

The ATA estimates the turnover rate among drivers at large truckload carriers has been above 90 percent since the end of 2011. It reached a low of 39 percent four years ago, but in 2005, it was as high as 130 percent. Smaller fleets have slightly lower turnover — 78 percent in the first quarter of 2014.

These challenges will only grow larger in coming years. In its ATA U.S. Freight Transportation Forecast to 2025, the association projects 23.5 percent growth in truckload freight tonnage through 2025. Bob Costello, ATA chief economist, sees the need for nearly 100,000 new drivers annually to keep pace.

Fast track to jobs

Walko pursued a driving career only after his job at a local manufacturer was eliminated.

“I got laid off … and the state said if you want a new career, we’ll send you to truck driving school,” he said.

After looking into various training programs, he chose the one at Luzerne County Community College, because he felt it was superior to others. The six-week course includes 105 hours of classroom instruction and 135 hours of driver training.

Harold Fisher, coordinator of the LCCC program, said it goes far beyond the 160 hours required by the Professional Truck Driver Institute.

“That’s not nearly enough,” he said.

Walko graduated in 2001 and has been working steadily ever since, with the exception of 18 months recuperating from an injury.

Fisher, who spent 32 years driving before coming to the school in 1999, said there are 75 to 80 graduates each year.

“If they want to work, we’ll get them a job,” he said. “We help place them. We have a good reputation with the companies around here.”

Fisher said the “bare minimum” starting salary is $45,000, and, “I’ve had guys go out of here and make $60,000 the first year,” with good benefits.

Sign-on bonuses are a plus — “Core-Mark is $4,000 right now,” he said.

Some companies also will reimburse new hires for the cost of training, which at LCCC is $4,500 in tuition, plus a permit fee of $100 or less.

While drivers leaving the field for less-stressful work adds to the shortage, Walko doesn’t see that in his future.

“When I was a child, I always said I wanted to drive one of those big trucks.”

It took a while to get there, but now, “I can’t see doing anything else for the rest of my life,” he said.

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