Long-haul trucks line up at the Diamond Shamrock Convenience Store at Baptist Road and Interstate 25. The national need for more truckers has reached what some call a crisis.
Long-haul trucks line up at the Diamond Shamrock Convenience Store at Baptist Road and Interstate 25. The national need for more truckers has reached what some call a crisis.

It’s a tough job — long hours driving tons of products with salaries based on the miles driven and how fast the merchandise arrives.

It’s lonely, with drivers spending weeks away from home.

It’s dangerous, as drivers deal with accidents, heavy traffic and icy roads through Rocky Mountain passes.

But as the national driver shortage reaches what some call a crisis, trucking companies are working to encourage younger drivers to get behind the wheel and try long-haul trucking as a career.

“Nationwide, we’re hiring about 300 people a week, and we would hire more than that if we could get them,” said Guy Horn, northwest and Rocky Mountain regional manager for Werner Enterprises, one of the largest trucking companies in the nation. “A lot of the experienced drivers are retiring right now. It’s progressively worsening.”

All the major carriers are struggling to replace older workers with the next generation of drivers.

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“We’re hiring all we can hire,” said Rosalita Perez, recruiter for May Trucking Company.

May operates 1,000 trucks nationwide, with 200 based in Denver. The company hauls household products for national retailers like Furniture Row, Target and Costco. Business at its Denver branch grew 20 percent last year, she said.

“A lot of the older experienced [drivers] are retiring, and we’re getting the new generation in,” Perez said. “We have more work than we have drivers. There’s a big demand right now.”

The Commercial Vehicle Training Association says the industry needs 97,000 new drivers annually in the United States, but expects a national shortfall of 239,000 drivers during the next decade.

“It’s the No. 1 occupation in the nation there is a need for,” said Clinton Cooper, team leader for adult services at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, which regularly hosts hiring events for trucking companies. At one hiring event, Stevens Transport offered free training for people with no experience.

The Mt. Carmel Center of Excellence Veteran Integration Program seeks to match veterans with jobs, and one branch targets the trucking industry, said Bob McLaughlin, a retired colonel who works as the center’s chief operations officer.

The program has partnered with Sage Trucking in Henderson, which is open to hiring military veterans and welcomes more trucking companies as partners, he said.

“We think it’s a good occupation for people coming out of the military,” McLaughlin said.

According to Fast Company, a monthly print and online business magazine, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers is the fastest job category that doesn’t require a college degree. Last week, the CareerBuilder website listed 3,955 job openings in trucking, requiring a Commercial Driver’s License, class A, B or C.

The federal government requires truckers to pass a drug test, a physical and the Department of Transportation’s drivers test, as well as have an acceptable driving record. Truckers who cross state lines must be 21 years old. No matter what the weather or the traffic, drivers can only be on the road 11 hours a day.

Incentives

Because of the need, trucking companies offer increasingly valuable incentives to potential employees.

Some companies offer sign-on bonuses of up to $7,500; others pay for commercial driving training; still others limit restrictions based on criminal backgrounds. Some companies waive additional training for veterans who have experience driving heavy equipment in the military.

Both the Werner and May representatives touted their high pay as the main hiring incentive. Most companies pay truckers a per-mile salary.

“If you’re getting paid per-mile and your wheels are not spinning, you’re not making money in this industry,” Perez said. As a result, tricky weather and accidents can slow down the deliveries and simultaneously lower drivers’ pay.

While May offers between 20 and 30 cents a mile for new drivers, the company also offers guaranteed wages of $105 a day, as long as the truckers are working or available to work, regardless of traffic or weather delays. For every mile over the $105, the company provides bonuses.

After 12 months, truckers earn 39 cents per mile driving for May, meaning most first-year truckers make around $40,000-$45,000; after some experience, they can make up to $70,000 annually.

“The harder they work, the more money they can make,” Perez said.

Werner and May officials acknowledge challenges in the industry, but say that pay and benefits aren’t part of the problem.

“The field has a lot of challenges, but it pays very well,” Horn said. Werner offers both medical and dental insurance, paid vacation, as well as both retirement and stock options. First-year truckers at Werner can earn $52,000-$55,000 annually. Top drivers can make more than $75,000 a year, he said.

Training

One of the challenges is obtaining the necessary training to receive a Class A Commercial Drivers License, needed to drive the big trucks across state lines. The training can cost up to $6,000 per trucker.

“Getting funding can be tricky,” Perez said. But the training is required — and some companies demand experience on top of the CDLs.

To fill the gap, the U.S. Truck Driving School in Fountain provides classes for commercial licenses that start weekly. Emily Clifton, director at the school, said she’s seen the need grow tremendously in the nearly six years she’s been at the school.

In 2010, she said there were few companies hiring.

“Now I get phone calls every single day and I get recruiter visits every single day,” Clifton said. “[They’re] trying to recruit students out of our school. There’s quite a need.”

Frequently, trucking companies hire people even before they complete their training. The school trains students during 10-hour days over the course of three weeks. Students spend 40 hours in a classroom setting and the balance is spent on the road. The cost ranges between $4,000 and $6,000, and the school offers both CDL training and testing, Class B truck and bus training, refresher courses and online courses.

Pikes Peak Community College also offers six courses in trucking operations, DOT requirements, maintenance and over-the-road driving and testing. Training involves road safety, proper turning and backing, braking, shifting, speed limits, signals, road signs and port-of-entry procedures.

The trucker’s perspective

Danny Jeffcoat, 54, was driving a Navajo truck northbound on Interstate 25 last week when he stopped for a regular inspection at the Monument port of entry. He’s spent half his life — 27 years — behind the wheel.

“They’re advertising everywhere,” he said. “The advertising is incredible, more than I’ve ever seen.”

Minnesota resident Nathan Christensen, 27, was hauling four-wheelers for RoadLink.

He believes there is a shortage because of the nature of the work: “People coming in want something nice and easy, where they’re home every night,” he said.

It’s a demanding field, Horn said. Drivers spend days out on the road, away from families.

“They could be away from home up to four weeks at a time,” Perez said. “Truck driving is a lifestyle. You are not out there to see the world and get paid for it. Get used to it. You’re not going to get a shower every night. You’re living in a box. You have to get creative about what you’re going to eat, what your lifestyle is going to be.”