By WAYNE SMITH
FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) _ Warren Scott is looking for a few good truck drivers.
Scott, a recruiter based with Maverick Transportation in Arkansas, said there is a projected shortage this year of nearly 150,000 drivers. By 2017, the shortfall is expected to be about 200,000.
“A lot of the older drivers are retiring and not enough younger drivers are going into truck driving,” Scott said.
The average age of a commercial driver is 48, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Industry figures cite that roughly 21 percent of drivers are 55 to 65 years old.
“Absolutely there is a shortage,” said Ford Boswell, spokesman for the Alabama Trucking Association. “As the baby boomers retire, the younger generation is not as enticed to being in a truck so much and away from the comforts of home.
“But we’re trying to show the industry in a better light and one where you can have a wonderful career.”
Boswell said new regulations have also hurt the industry, including a set number of hours drivers can be on the road.
Bruce Harris, of Harris Express in Muscle Shoals, has been in the trucking industry for 56 years. Now 89, Harris said he quit driving after about 30 years.
He still operates his business, which is primarily carrying the U.S. mail from the Florence post office. He has his own ideas as to what has caused the truck-driver shortage.
“You hear a lot of complaints about the pay rate,” Harris said. “Back when I got started, gas was 18 or 19 cents a gallon. Now, it’s $3.84. You also hear that there is a lot of complaints about keeping up the truck, or even finding someone to work on them.
“I remember when most drivers got paid real good. Most people now want to get in computers, and it’s hard to even find a mechanic to work on the trucks.”
Raymond Moore said he has been driving for more than 20 years and enjoys working for Harris.
“It’s a living,” said Moore, 68. “It’s harder than it used to be. It’s a good living, and I work for a fine man.”
Moore drives a Harris truck carrying U.S. mail from Florence to Decatur and on to Birmingham. He then goes to Huntsville before returning to Florence. He does that shift four days a week, getting home about 7:30 every morning.
“Young folks today don’t want to do it,” Moore said of trucking. “People don’t want to do the hard work.”
Roy Merritt, a recruiter for Atlanta-based US Express, said there has been a consistent driver shortage for years.
“The key is finding qualified drivers,” Merritt said. “Only a certain percentage of students are in that percentage. We have a number of training classes. The challenge is getting qualified students, and we have had a consistent shortage of doing that.”
Merritt also sees the percentage of older drivers growing.
“A lot of them are starting all over again,” Merritt said. “Some of them are coming from other careers, and a high percentage are starting in their 40s.”
Scott said the industry once had a renegade image, but a lot of work has been done to clean it up and make the industry more appealing.
“Once the drivers complete school, we have them go through a minimum six-week course with us at our facility,” he said. “We’re very careful about who we hire, and once we do hire someone they are very happy with us and tend to stay with us.”
Calhoun Community College in Decatur offers a monthlong course each month to train drivers on getting their commercial driver’s license, or CDL. Students must take a skills test and a written test.
Truck driving is big business to the U.S. and the Alabama economy. In 2012, the trucking industry in Alabama provided 104,470 jobs, or one out of 14 in the state, according to the Alabama Trucking Association. Total trucking industry wages paid in Alabama in 2012 exceeded $4.6 billion, with an average trucking industry salary of $43,924.
As of May 2013, more than 9,240 trucking companies were located in Alabama, most of them small, locally owned businesses.
“The biggest challenge is finding hirable drivers,” said Carol Wilson, of Tidewater Transit, who also recruits drivers from the Calhoun class. Tidewater is based in North Carolina. “And you have drivers who have their CDLs but who may have had an accident or DUI in the past. And you have to pass a drug test.
“I hear a lot of companies said there is a shortage, but our turnover rate is relatively low. We try to find good drivers and keep them.”