CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — A shortage of truck drivers, which began years before the COVID-19 pandemic worsened it and revealed supply chain gaps around the world, is driving starting wages into the six-figures and prompting renewed talk of allowing younger drivers to cross state lines behind the wheels of heavy trucks.
The chief operating officer of CRST, a national trucking company based in Cedar Rapids, said he could find local market jobs for 1,000 more drivers if were able to hire that many.
“There’s just that much demand out there,” COO Michael Gannon told the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
The American Trucking Association estimates there’s an overall need to fill about 80,000 trucking jobs to meet the country’s demand. A study done by the association reports that the need could double by 2028, leading to 160,000 jobs to fill.
Gannon said CRST, which he has been with for 38 years, has over 6,000 drivers spread out across multiple divisions around the nation with some driving interstate, but most traveling out and back less than 200 miles a day.
He said the biggest industry change in the last few years has been getting drivers more time at home, instead of having them on jobs requiring them to be gone for days or even weeks at a time.
“Getting drivers home daily or weekly, depending on the job, has been the goal,” he said. “We are doing our best to work toward that because that is the lifestyle drivers want, so it’s about getting more accelerated there.”
Gannon said getting drivers home more often and raising pay rates are attempts to draw new people into the industry. Though the driver shortage predates the pandemic, the past year and a half period has been the most challenging he has faced in his career, Gannon said.
“The crush of supply chain issues has finally put a push on the industry to raise rates and we’ve seen a huge increase in driver compensation in the past year, the biggest I’ve ever seen by far,” Gannon said. “But the challenge is there is a fight among all carriers for a shrinking pool of drivers. The silver lining, however, is drivers are now getting paid what they deserve.”
Trucking companies across the country and in Iowa — including CRST, Heartland Express, Ruan, TMC and others — have boosted driver pay since the pandemic to stay competitive.
Truck drivers around the nation are seeing pay increases in the tens of thousands, and students are being offered six-figure salaries as soon as they finish training programs.
Kevonte Brown finished the truck driving training program last month at Kirkwood Community College. The 22-year-old living in Iowa City works for Carew Trucking and Landscaping in North Liberty.
Brown, originally from Chicago, moved to Iowa when he started high school but then moved to the warmer Atlanta due to having sickle-cell anemia, which makes colder temperatures hard on his body. He said he moved back to Iowa recently just to get his commercial driver’s license from Kirkwood.
“I was looking at trucking schools down South, but that would’ve come out of my own pocket. So I thought, why not come here and get my education for free?” Brown asked. “One of my friends opened my eyes to the gap-tuition program through Kirkwood and Iowa Workforce.”
Under the program, partial or full tuition is provided for qualifying students pursuing certificates at the state’s community colleges for in-demand careers. Besides helping with trucking and transportation certificates, the program considers applications for other career training including health care, manufacturing, construction and information technology.
Brown said every job he had looked at in the industry after finishing the program paid well.
“I had a company offer me six figures to come drive trucks with them,” he said. “I didn’t accept it right now because I’m trying to get back to living in warm weather, so I didn’t want to join them and then leave.”
Brown said that no matter where he ends up living, he is confident he will be able to find a high-paying job.
“I really did have companies calling me left and right like bill collectors,” he said. “They like that I’m young. They really want the new generation to come and take over. Anywhere I move in the U.S. or the world, I know I will never have to worry about a job.”
Brown is the target demographic for many trucking companies in Iowa and around the country, as many truck drivers are getting to the age of retirement. The average age of a driver in Iowa is 58, according to the Iowa Motor Truck Association.
But Gannon said it’s harder to recruit 21-year-olds, which is the age you have to be to drive across state lines. Currently, there is a nationwide push among trucking organizations to have a federal law allowing 18-year-olds to drive heavy trucks across borders.
Many in the industry, including Gannon, say they would like to pursue individuals graduating high school. By the time many turn 21, they already are in other jobs or finishing college, thus clogging a potential pipeline of a new generation of drivers.
“Our owner, John Smith, has been pushing for 18-year-olds in the industry for 20 years,” Gannon said. “I think we’re finally there. If an 18-year-old can go to war, why can’t they drive a truck? If an 18-year-old went through Kirkwood or our program, there’s no doubt in my mind they would be a safe truck driver.”
Kirkwood’s program, for which Brown returned to Iowa, is a four-week program that has been around for almost 40 years. Students in it receive over 200 hours of classroom instruction and a minimum of 60 hours behind the wheel.
“It was great and they actually cared,” Brown said. “They don’t leave people behind and they make sure every person is up to speed with the class.”
But like the truck driver shortage, Kirkwood has been dealing with its own instructor shortage since the pandemic began.
Amy Lasack, executive director of continuing education and training services at Kirkwood, said each class had the capacity to have 12 students at once. But around the time the pandemic began, each class was limited to six students.
“It started right before COVID hit,” Lasack said. “We’re hoping we can capitalize on truck driver retirements and they can come work as a part-time instructor.”
The classes also are opportunities for trucking companies to recruit. Lasack said in any given month, a dozen or more companies will come in to speak to students.
“It’s pretty informal, but they talk about what the industry is like and they talk about recruiting,” Lasack said. “Employers are there at some point almost every day.”
Lasack said she thinks if regulations change regarding the age required to drive heavy trucks across state lines, that could help with the recruitment.
“For students just graduating high school, the career isn’t an option for them,” she said. “A lot of companies find that silly: You can drive from Cedar Rapids to Sioux City, but not Cedar Rapids to Moline” under the current law.
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