Four years ago, drivers looking to get their commercial driver's license just needed to pass a driving and written test. It wasn't until 2009 that Washington state tacked on additional requirements, including completion of a state-approved training course.
It's keeping the roads safer, as was the intent, but it's also one of many factors contributing to driver shortages, according to industry experts.
“There's a shortage because it's not as easy to get it,” said Caramie Conn. “You can't just go out and get your CDL because you want it. Now, you actually have to earn it. You have to prove that you're a safe driver.”
Conn, 27, was tired of her dead-end job as a receptionist and struggling to make ends meet as a single mother of three, so this summer she went back to school to get her CDL.
By the time she graduated with a Class A license, she had multiple job offers.
But, like many entering the business, she wanted a position that would keep her local and have her home every night.
She signed with Old Dominion Freight Line in Seattle. It's not an easy job, but she's making more than $20 an hour and can sleep in her own bed, under the same roof as her family.
Conn's happy ending, though, illustrates where the real demand lies – in the long-haul sector.
Josh Howard, Tacoma sales manager of the industrial staffing company Laborworks, Inc. said his company has had a steady request for CDL drivers, particularly over-the-road drivers.
“There's not a lot of young people going into that anymore,” Howard explained. “We are always posting ads for CDL drivers. It doesn't offer the at-home or flexible work schedule that most people coming into the workforce are looking for.”
Pat Gendreau, executive vice president of human resources at Pacific-based Gordon Trucking agrees.
The company is having a hard time filling its driver seats because the no one is replacing retiring drivers.
“We're always posting and advertising for these positions,” Gendreau said. “A big part of it is lifestyle issues. We're a long-haul trucking company, so drivers are away from home overnight. Or, sometimes, multiple nights.”
Gendreau has been in the industry for more than 20 years and said the demand has been a topic of conversation for more than a decade, but it's become more acute in the last five years.
“When I first started at Gordon Trucking, there were actually more drivers than there were positions here,” he said.
However, in the last three years – during which Gendreau has been responsible for driver recruiting – the company has had more than 100 openings at any given time out of its 2,000 positions.
Carlile Transportation Systems, which has operations in the Port of Tacoma, is also down drivers.
“I feel like I'm down 1,000,” said terminal manager Ted Klein, noting he's actually short 6 of his 34 positions.
Another factor contributing to the shortage is pay.
Pay in the industry has been stagnant, according to Gendreau. Most of Gordon's drivers make between $35,000 and $45,000 a year, so his company has started offering incentives to attract and retain drivers.
“That's a big issue, when you combine that with the lifestyle issues and some of the constraints on capacity, it becomes a job that's just not appealing to people,” he said. “We actually implemented some incentive pay recently – like a bonus program for drivers.
“Other trucking companies have been taking the same approach. People have been very recently making some changes to their pay structure. Even with that, I still think this is a super competitive industry.”
Eric Wiltse, night shift lead instructor at Commercial Driver School, said starting salary at companies he works with is between $30,000 and $35,000. But, he, too, has seen companies getting creative with pay.
“A lot of companies are starting to reward for performance, which is the way it should be,” he said.
The incentives help, but new hours of service regulations that went into effect in July put restrictions on drivers who get paid by the mile.
Even though Gordon has started giving bonuses and has been investing in its trucks and improving amenities at its terminal locations, the company's turnover is increasing.
Over the last two years driver turnover jumped from 60 to 70 percent. But, it's still below the industry average, Gendreau said, noting the change is likely caused by the competition.
To help fill its openings, the company is working on increasing its capacity to train new drivers.
Only about 10 percent of Gordon's drivers enter the company without CDL driving experience, but Gendreau's hoping that number will increase.
“We actually have more people coming out of school than we have capacity to train,” Gendreau said. “Training a truck driver in long-haul work is difficult because those trainers have a student for up to four weeks.”
Gendreau said he plans to double the number of trainers to 40 by this time next year to accommodate the demand.
He's also looking to target more females and military retirees as well, he said.
“About four percent of our driving force is female. I think that's another area that the industry could improve on,” Gendreau said. “There are also quite a few people coming out of the military. We haven't yet put a lot of focus on that, but that's on our agenda.”
Howard sees many military retirees taking these types of jobs, likely because they're used to working away from home, he said.
Enrollment numbers at Commercial Driver School's Lakewood campus confirm this belief. About 60 percent of its students have served in the military, said lead instructor Randy Dean.
“We're seeing more enrollments because it's required. But, we're not able to meet the demand of companies,” said Dion McNeeley, president of Commercial Driver School. “We went from one to three campuses. Even with that, we can't keep up with the demand. In Pierce County, there are 65,000 unemployed veterans.”
McNeeley, an ex-Marine, said he received his license in the 90s when it was much easier to obtain. But, now, as president of a training school, he is trying to help fill the growing demand for drivers.
“Right now, my school has more than 126 companies looking for drivers,” McNeeley said. “The number of people who could be trained in the next year can't keep up with the jobs available.”