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Trucking industry employment suffering from image problem

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By Bill Poovey
Published Feb. 29, 2016

With Upstate business growth accelerating demand for freight services, trucking companies are struggling to keep up. Entry-level jobs are paying $50,000 or more a year, but empty drivers seats have the companies turning away customers.

“We as an industry are seeing daily needs for drivers that we don’t have,” said Rusty Davis, Southeast region operations vice president for Superior Carriers in Greer. He said the need for truck drivers will “continue to grow.”

Greenville Technical College truck driver training instructor Todd Lantz (standing) instructs student Matthew Bullman of Spartanburg. (Photo by Bill Poovey)Greenville Technical College truck driver training instructor Todd Lantz (standing) instructs student Matthew Bullman of Spartanburg. (Photo by Bill Poovey)
The industry’s top advocate in the state, S.C. Trucking Association President and CEO Rick Todd, said the profession has an image problem despite lucrative pay and work schedules that in many cases allow drivers to spend their nights at home. Todd said that commercial driving is hard work with long hours but that the bigger problem is recruiting young drivers.

“Parents seem to have this obsession with sending their kids to a four-year college” Todd said. He said the mindset that truckers are always on the road and the work is dirty is an outdated one. The lament is similar to that of manufacturers — that a traditional image of the industry deters qualified job prospects.

“That is a huge issue,” Todd said. “Everywhere I go, from industry to construction, they are very concerned about the lack of enough truck drivers. That will hold back growth more than anything. When you talk about ‘How is business?’ and ‘What can make it better?’ it is the ability to hire more drivers, by far.”

Davis agreed that the driving profession has an image problem and said he is seeing young applicants who are more family-oriented. He said many trucking companies “have evolved to a point where we recognize the need of the driver and try to do things that make it more attractive.”

Davis said Superior is a national carrier and has about 35 to 39 drivers in Greer.

“We could easily, out of Greer, run 45-plus drivers,” Davis said. He said if a call comes for service and no driver is available, “We just turn down the opportunity. Once we are booked for that day we just turn that down.”

He said manufacturing growth in the Upstate has had an even bigger impact on boosting demand for truck services and providing more job opportunities that are “out-and-back loads for drivers.”

“In our area, we have the BMWs and things coming off the port in Charleston and the Savannah market,” Davis said. “All those things are turnable in a day’s shift. Where before we didn’t have the BMWs and the manufacturers that have the support group around here within a shift’s turn.

“I think the industry has not changed as much as the manufacturing suppliers’ availability.”

At Greenville Technical College, trucking students finishing the nine-week commercial driver’s license course are typically hired by companies that require up to eight weeks of on-the-job training. Greenville Tech truck driver training instructor Todd Lantz said he always has a waiting list for upcoming classes. Department of Transportation regulations have put new limits on numbers of students per instructor while training in a truck. Lantz said his day class has 20 enrolled and the night class has 15. He said the day class runs 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday. The first two weeks are in a classroom.

“That way they get prepped to go to the DMV to get their permit, and then the last seven weeks is in the trucks and on the backing range,” Lantz said. With an earned certificate after nine weeks “we set them up at the DMV. They have three opportunities at the DMV to get their license.”

Lantz said there are about 150 graduates in a year, a number limited by the federal training rules.

Graduates who are younger than 21 drive inside the state only, he said.

“You have to be 21 to drive interstate,” Lantz said. “Companies typically aren’t going to hire someone under the age of 21, number one, because typically they go out of state.”

He said students get 12 college credit hours which allows them to “get lottery tuition assistance money with our program.” He said that when the lottery money pays, the cost for a Greenville County resident is $1,322. That compares with a $1,522 cost for students in the program who live in other counties.

Lantz said students who earn certificates are going to get trained by employers as newly licensed drivers. He said they typically are paid $500 to $600 a week during training and “once they finish their training with that company the earning potential in that first year should be over $50,000.” Lantz said “whether it be a local or over the road, drivers can make more money.” He said a company that hires Greenville Tech graduates “told us the earning potential and being home every night is $52,000 to $55,000 a year.”

Earning a license to drive a big rig is a “little harder” than getting an automobile license, Lantz said. He said the commercial test includes a pretrip inspection, a skills test and road test and “takes about three hours at the DMV. Once they are done with that they have a certificate, and they have their license.”

Lantz said he gives prospective students the same response when they ask about the prospect of getting a job.

“I say, the only way you don’t get a job is if you don’t want to work, because there are so many jobs available right now.“

S.C. Department of Motor Vehicle records for 2015 show there are 45,935 heavy trucks, those weighing more than 26,000 pounds, on the road compared with 42,843 in 2012.

“We have had some growth,” Todd said. “Certainly the vehicle fleet is about back to where it was prerecession. Some companies are larger now. You are going to have a large number, probably a disproportionate number, in the Upstate just because of the manufacturing presence. There is a lot in Charleston.” Todd said trucking company operators “will all tell you that lack of qualified drivers is holding them back.”

A student in the Greenville Tech driving program — Matthew Bullman, of Spartanburg — said he previously worked as a chef and at automobile assembly plants in Kentucky, making $13.75 an hour. Bullman, 18, said his grandfathers both retired out of the trucking industry and he has a cousin who is a driver.

“They have kind of been in my ear about it for a few years,” Bullman said.

He said not wanting to be on the road for long periods was the main deterrent for following them professionally.

“My initial thoughts were you had to be gone all the time, on the road, nonstop,” Bullman said. “I didn’t really realize you could get local jobs or you could be home every day or two, and it kind of pushed me away, thinking I would have to be out a month at a time, two months at a time.”

Bullman said he has “twin babies at home so I needed something to have some steady income and this is a real good industry, a lot of job opportunities.”

Reach Bill Poovey at 864-235-5677, ext. 104.

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