The Long Road Ahead

Dec 10, 2019, 19:50 PM
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November/December 2019

By Megan Quinn

The national truck driver shortage is likely to get even worse than it already is, but recyclers are offering some unique perks to attract and keep drivers.

Feature Graphics 300 x 2003Tim Robinson spends 9 to 12 hours a day in his truck, driving the same routes and picking up recyclables from the same containers throughout Westborough, Mass. He’ll celebrate his 30th anniversary as a truck driver in January. “I really love this job. I’m a lifer, so I know I’ll keep doing this a long time,” he says.

Robinson, who works for E.L. Harvey & Sons (Westborough, Mass.), likes the familiarity of his route and the predictability of his schedule. He even likes the physical demands of the job, which require him to stay in good shape so he can get in and out of the cab multiple times a day, pull open heavy container doors, and rearrange loads in his truck by hand. The things he loves about this job are the same things that make it hard for many recyclers to attract new drivers to these positions, he says. “It’s hard work—you don’t realize it sometimes. It’s not for everyone.” 

It’s been tough for companies to hire and keep truck drivers for at least the last 15 years, according to data from the American Trucking Associations (Arlington, Va.). The problem has accelerated in the past few years because existing truck drivers are getting older and retiring, or drivers are leaving trucking for other jobs. Fewer younger drivers see truck driving positions as a good living because of the sometimes-inflexible schedule, especially for long-haul truckers, who must spend weeks on the road at a time, says Commodor Hall, ISRI’s transportation safety director. Employers of truck drivers also compete with industries such as construction, which offer competitive pay but are less likely to require a commercial driver’s license, according to the ATA. The tight labor market in the United States also makes hiring a challenge: As of September 2019, the unemployment rate was 3.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Last year, about 60,800 driver jobs were vacant in the United States, up almost 20% from the 50,700 positions in 2017, the ATA says. In the next decade, that could grow to 160,000 vacant driver positions a year. The ATA estimates that the trucking industry will need nearly 1.1 million new drivers over the coming 10 years to accommodate both the growth of the industry and the number of people who will likely retire or leave trucking for other reasons. That means companies will need to collectively hire about 110,000 new drivers per year, according to its 2019 truck driver shortage analysis report.

“I’ve always been short of drivers, but now, with the economy the way it is, unemployment is very low. This is the toughest time,” says Sean Steves, senior vice president of operations at Casella Waste Systems (Rutland, Vt.), which maintains a fleet of about 1,000 trucks including side- and rear-
loading waste and recycling trucks, roll-off trucks, and a few tractor-
trailers. Casella has almost 1,000 drivers but always needs more, he says. “We have an aging workforce, lots of folks retiring, and the new generations don’t necessarily want to drive recycling or garbage trucks.”

Recyclers are feeling the effects of the shortage in their day-to-day operations, says Valerie Androutsopoulos, principal of Vangel (Baltimore). Her company is down to just one driver, who picks up loads of paper and other recyclables from office buildings in Baltimore. Several years ago, Vangel had three or more drivers. Vangel sold its shredding operations last year, so it doesn’t need as many drivers as before, but Androutsopoulos still thinks it’s risky to rely on just one driver. “If he has to call in sick or something happens, it would be good to have a backup plan,” she says.

Hiring drivers has always been an issue at Vangel. “If we had one, we needed two. If we had two, we needed three,” Androutsopoulos says. Vangel’s remaining driver has been with the company since 1994 and is a great employee, she says. But one major consequence of the rising driver shortage, she says, is that it’s been tougher to fire drivers who weren’t meeting the company’s needs. Ten years ago, if a driver wasted time between stops or made repeated mistakes, it was easy to put an ad in the paper for another one. In the past five years, with the market so tight, a perpetually tardy driver might be better than no driver at all. “It’s a ‘devil you know’ scenario,” she says.

Recruiting a younger generation

One of the biggest reasons for the worsening driver shortage is “the relatively high average age of the existing workforce,” says Bob Costello, chief economist for the ATA. The average age for over-the-road drivers is 46, but in other trucking sectors, such as private carriers, the average age is closer to 57. 

As more drivers retire, the ATA wants to motivate workers to join the trucking industry at a younger age. Though drivers can currently get their commercial driver’s license at 18 and drive local routes within a single state, they cannot drive across state lines until they are 21. At the same time, many companies reserve local routes for positions of seniority, the ATA says. The existing age limits also mean “potential drivers are likely to have found another career path by the time they are 21,” the ATA report states. 

The ATA supports the DRIVE-Safe Act, which would allow 18- to 20-year-old CDL drivers to cross state lines, but it also increases training and supervision for these younger drivers by requiring 400 hours of training, 240 of which are behind the wheel. Recyclers have mixed opinions about the proposal. Some recyclers don’t have interstate routes and say a rule change wouldn’t apply to them. Others say they are already wary of hiring drivers of any age that lack the experience needed to drive challenging routes. Vangel’s drivers, for example, need to be able to safely drive through Baltimore’s congested city traffic to reach the customers the company serves. “We need drivers with experience doing city driving so they don’t bring the trucks back scuffed up” from backing into narrow alleys, Androutsopoulos says.

Other recyclers have embraced the idea of hiring younger drivers and are changing their driving programs to accommodate those with less experience. Several recyclers say they partner with local driving schools to advertise open positions at their scrap facilities and will cross-train new drivers on other scrapyard tasks while they gain experience on the road. “Some people are afraid of hiring drivers right out of school, but we’re not afraid because we train them,” says Jerry Sjogren, E.L. Harvey’s safety director. New drivers spend time riding with a trainer and practicing tasks such as moving containers in the yard before they can drive routes. E.L. Harvey also sends all of its new drivers to a defensive driving school. “We feel a responsibility to do that training. I don’t care if you tell me you are a good driver—we have to see it,” Sjogren says.

As Casella hires younger drivers, it has changed its scheduling process to accommodate their work/life balance needs. Older generations who work at Casella have no problem with the company’s average 52.5-hour-a-week schedule and are eager to sign up for overtime. Millennials and Generation Z hires would rather stick to a 40-hour workweek, Steves says. “Scheduling a 40-hour workweek is not that common in the industry, but for certain routes where we are picking up recycling without an automated truck, we’re okay with 40 hours because they are strenuous routes,” he says. Steves still prefers drivers to work longer hours, especially on roll-off, front-load, and automated truck routes where drivers use a joystick to load and unload. “We need to fill the hours, especially during peak season, when some are allowed to work up to 60 hours.”

 Recyclers who invest in driver education can set themselves apart from employers in other trucking sectors, especially when it comes to hiring younger or less experienced drivers, Steves says. Casella recently started a driver career-path program, which shows applicants their expected career path over three years and points out scheduled pay raises and periods where drivers can cross-train in other departments and learn new skills. “When we go to a job fair, or if someone finds us online, we can pitch to them that ‘we can show you where you’ll be in three years,’” he says. “It is separating us from our competitors because we can show them their future with us.”

Both Steves and Sjogren say it’s common for companies to pay for certain new hires to get their CDL if they believe the driver will be a good addition to the company. Most scrapyards that invest in employees’ CDLs ask the driver to stay with the company for a certain period or pay back the cost of the driving program. 

Recycling’s hiring perks

Recyclers also have a competitive edge over employers in some other trucking sectors because they usually need drivers for local jobs, “meaning their employees can go home every night instead of spending weeks on the road,” Hall says. Recyclers should highlight these scheduling perks when advertising for new hires, he says. “That’s a big selling point for us,” Steves agrees. “We have a consistent and predictable schedule where drivers know they will work Monday through Friday, drive certain routes, and stop at a certain number of stops.” Casella’s driver positions are also somewhat insulated from swings in the economy, he says, because residents depend on waste and recycling pickup regardless of the economy.

Paul Lubas, a 35-year veteran of the trucking industry, used to work for a manufacturing company that paid for him to get his CDL and assigned him convenient local routes. “I liked that, so I stayed for 23 years,” he says. Then, the company expanded its reach and started requiring drivers to take longer and longer routes that spread from central Massachusetts to as far away as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “They wouldn’t tell you where you were going until 5 p.m. the night before. I had two little ones at home, and I just couldn’t do that,” he says. Lubas quit the company and started working for E.L. Harvey because the recycler serves areas less than 100 miles away from its central facility. That allows him to leave work in time to pick up his children from school on certain days, and he makes up the hours by working later shifts on alternating days. “They are very family-oriented, which really helped me out,” he says. 

Another approach to attracting more drivers is offering higher-than-average wages or signing bonuses, Hall says. While some recyclers can do that, others say they do not have the budget to compete with sectors like construction and oil and gas, which may offer competitive salaries or hours, he says. (See “Hiring Headaches” in Scrap’s July/August 2019 issue.)

It’s important to offer fair wages, but it’s equally critical to maintain a safe and positive work environment, Steves says. “You can be the highest-paying employer in a given market, but if you don’t take care of your employees, they might not last,” he says. “You have to make sure they are engaged, whether that’s having recognition programs for safety or celebrating work anniversaries.” Casella plans employee outings and cookouts where workers can invite their families and bring their children, for example. Truckers are a tight-knit community, and they aren’t afraid to let peers know if they’re unhappy with their working conditions, he says. “If Casella is a fun place to work, the drivers tell other drivers.”

Hall says truck drivers can feel isolated from the day-to-day operations of a scrap company. Recyclers that include their truck drivers in outings and events and regularly seek their feedback about their work experience will build trust and loyalty, he says. “Even something as simple as providing the same uniforms as everyone else makes them feel like they are part of a team. It’s important,” he says.

Be sure to keep on top of your maintenance program, Hall adds. Not only is good truck maintenance a critical safety matter, it also provides a nicer experience for workers who can sometimes spend 12-13 hours a day with their vehicle. “A lot of drivers we hired from the competition came to us because they were in a truck that wasn’t safe and shouldn’t be on the road because of bad tires or bad brakes. When they asked for repairs, they’d be ignored,” Sjogren says. 

Drivers also want to drive newer-model trucks with features such as good air conditioning, and they may not take a job if the vehicle they’ll be assigned seems outdated or uncomfortable, Hall says. “AC is a huge deal for our guys in the summer months,” Sjogren adds. “It seems obvious, but word gets out. If you have a good fleet, and you run good equipment, you can attract people.”

Many recyclers also are replacing older manual-transmission vehicles with automatic models, which broadens the range of applicants they can hire. E.L. Harvey began phasing out manual vehicles a few years ago because fewer drivers are familiar with driving them. Now, its entire 150-truck fleet is automatic. Androutsopoulos of Vangel plans to follow suit when her company’s trucks need to be replaced. “You wouldn’t believe the number of times we would interview someone who couldn’t drive a stick,” she says. 

Meeting safety standards

Despite offering perks such as better schedules, training opportunities, and nicer vehicles, recyclers still must contend with safety-related hiring challenges that won’t go away anytime soon, Costello says. “Many carriers, despite being short drivers, are highly selective in hiring drivers because they have made safety and professionalism high priorities,” he says in the ATA report. 

 Applicants who look good on paper often drop out of the candidate pool when they can’t meet stringent safety requirements, Sjogren says. “What makes it hard is that our standards are pretty high. You have to pass criminal background checks because we have a lot of government and state customers. You have to pass a drug and alcohol test, have a clean driving record, and have to pass a DOT physical, so the driver pool shrinks.”

Drug and alcohol testing is something Vangel, Casella, and E.L. Harvey all consider among the toughest hiring hurdles. Some drivers are under the mistaken belief they can use drugs once they’ve been hired, or they believe they won’t be drug-tested while on the job, Androutsopoulos says. Several years ago, she fired a driver for leaving a joint in the truck’s ashtray. One former truck driver, who still has his CDL but no longer drives trucks because of a back injury, says he knows several people who missed out on high-paying trucking jobs because they failed the required drug test. “It’s crazy to me that you would invest so much in getting your CDL—understand that [it costs] thousands of dollars sometimes—and you decide you’re going to smoke a little weed? You’re passing up good money for what?”

Some companies also have installed dashboard cameras or other monitoring technology to keep track of driver behavior on the road. About two years ago, E.L. Harvey installed cameras on the dashboard and separate cameras outside the trucks, which provide recordings of unusual incidents, such as when drivers have to slam on their brakes or swerve. “I was not crazy about it when I first heard we were getting them,” Robinson admits. “But honestly, I’m not doing anything I’m not supposed to be doing, so it hasn’t been a problem for me.”

Drivers also have mixed opinions about the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rule change in December 2017 that requires interstate truck drivers to use electronic logging devices, which connect to the vehicle’s engine and automatically create records of duty status instead of relying on drivers to fill out paper logs. Some recyclers worried the rule change would result in drivers quitting or finding driving jobs where they wouldn’t have to drive routes subject to ELD requirements, such as trucks under 10,000 pounds or routes that don’t leave the state. So far, those fears have been unfounded, at least at Casella, Steves says.

Another truck driver, who once drove for a variety of demolition, recycling, and grocery companies in the Virginia and Maryland region, says he left the trucking industry in part because regulations and safety features such as dashboard cameras and ELDs felt too invasive. “I get that [companies] need to know we’re being safe. But it seemed like every time I took a new job, there was more they were keeping track of.” He now drives for Lyft and Uber, where he makes less money but is happier with the schedule’s flexibility. “I can pick my daughter up from school now,” he says. 

The future workforce

Recyclers say truck drivers can count on technology becoming a bigger and bigger part of the truck driver experience in the coming years. The ATA predicts technology could “have a positive impact on the driver shortage by making the job less stressful, and the more sophisticated technology may also attract younger individuals to truck driving,” according to its report. Researchers testing autonomous vehicles suggest the technology might help ease the growing truck driver shortage, but the ATA says it will be “many decades” before the industry will see fully autonomous Class 8 trucks on the road. “We’re not really worried about [driverless vehicles] yet,” Steves says. “It’s something to keep an eye on, but I feel that is pretty far out there for our industry.”

One more immediate hurdle is diversifying trucking’s human workforce. Recyclers—and any industry that hires truck drivers—can attract more women and people of color by showing they operate safe and accepting workplaces, Hall says. The industry has work to do in this arena, the ATA says. Just 6.6% of truck drivers are women, an increase of just 2% in the last 18 years, Costello says. “Some trucking companies have put an emphasis on female drivers, but the highest percentage of female drivers we have seen is around 20% for those fleets,” Costello says in the report. The industry is doing slightly better at attracting drivers who are people of color. In 2018, 40.4% of drivers were people of color. In 2001, that number was 26.6%, the ATA reports. Groups such as the National Minority Trucking Association (College Park, Ga.) and the Women in Trucking Association (Plover, Wis.) advocate for women and people of color by promoting job opportunities, supporting existing truckers, and partnering with trucking companies to diversify their workplaces.

The ATA also supports diversifying the workforce by providing jobs for those transitioning from active or reserve military duty or retiring from other military jobs. E.L. Harvey and some other recyclers work with the Veterans Administration to advertise their jobs. 

Recyclers can help promote trucking as a professional career, Sjogren adds. As college costs increase, trucking and other vocational positions are a way for workers to make a good living without incurring college debt, he says. “The federal government calls truck drivers professionals. The industry calls them professionals. Truck drivers should be treated no differently than other vocations—if you’re mechanically inclined, you like being hands-on, this could be the job for you.”

Megan Quinn is senior reporter/writer for Scrap.

The national truck driver shortage is expected to get worse, but recyclers are using industry-specific perks to attract and keep good drivers.

  • 2019
  • Nov_Dec

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