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Trucking industry expects growth, but lack of experienced drivers could be a roadblock

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Trucker Shane Cusimano, behind the wheel of a Freightliner Coronado, drives for Cumberland County-based Paul Miller Trucking.
Trucker Shane Cusimano, behind the wheel of a Freightliner Coronado, drives for Cumberland County-based Paul Miller Trucking. - (Photo / )

Paul Miller Sr. started in 1978 with one truck, which he drove out of his home in Spring Grove, York County.

He incorporated as Paul Miller Trucking and, over three decades, steadily added freight and trucks. In order to keep operations growing and running smoothly, Miller organized his company into divisions that include PMT Logistics and PMT Service.

Today, the firm hauls mainly food freight in about 100 trucks up and down the East Coast. Management is now in the hands of Paul Miller Jr., who bought the business in 2011. He recently moved Paul Miller Trucking from Spring Grove to 451 Freight St. in Hampden Township, Cumberland County.

“The biggest reason for that is to get us in a better location,” Paul Miller Jr. said. “I feel growth will come a lot easier (near) Camp Hill. It's more in line with our route as a Northeast carrier.”

Miller projects 20 percent growth over the next few years. He is already contemplating how to acquire more land for parking around the company's new home.

Those growth projections are right in line with recent forecasts by the American Trucking Associations. The trade association projects freight tonnage to grow 23.5 percent by 2025, with freight revenues increasing 72 percent.

The only problem is finding experienced drivers to fill the trucks. The ATA said there is a current shortage of 30,000 truckers nationwide, a figure that could climb to 200,000 in a decade.

These positions refer to experienced drivers who have some training and hold a commercial driver's license. While a few larger trucking companies offer their own training, most drivers go to truck-driving school to earn a CDL, according to the ATA.

Trucks to fill

Miller is hopeful he will continue to attract quality drivers. PMT does business with “driver-friendly” customers, he pointed out. For example, “We're seeking customers who have what we call in the industry drop-and-hook loads,” he said, “so you don't have to wait for hours at a food warehouse.”

He will have plenty of competition. At Daily Express in Middlesex Township, Erik Thompson, director of recruiting and human resources, said he could put 50 more trucks on the road if he had the drivers.

“We have enormous freight potential here at Daily Express,” Thompson said. “Probably more than we've had at any time in our history.”

The Daily Express fleet is about 300 trucks.

In Central Pennsylvania, home to dozens of trucking companies, short-haul carriers seem to be doing OK finding drivers, said Jim Runk, president and CEO of the Cumberland County-based Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association.

“The long-haul guys who are out for days and weeks at a time is where the real problem exists,” Runk said. “We're trying to do all kinds of things to entice younger people to get into the business, but it can be hard work. They don't want to be away from home and all those sorts of things.”

The pay is certainly good for drivers. Average annual pay for long-distance drivers was $49,540 in 2013, according to ATA estimates. If the driver shortage continues, Thompson said, market forces will only push that number higher.

“Right now, the demand for freight is high and increasing,” he said. “Market forces are creating rate hikes, and rate hikes reward drivers.”

Bonus programs

Daily Express is pushing its driver referral program that rewards drivers up to $2,000 for bringing in a qualified driver who joins the team, Thompson said. Other companies offer sign-on bonuses.

Lester R. Summers Inc. has 62 drivers working out of its Ephrata Township facility and is looking for more, said Steve Freysz, director of safety and personnel. A recent radio ad drew no response, he added.

“It's definitely challenging to find good drivers, there's no question about that,” Freysz said. “There seems to be a lot less driver applicants than even a few years ago.”

Summers Inc. dates to 1946, and Freysz said the company relies on its reputation as a solid, family-run business to attract drivers. The third generation — Rebecca Summers, John Summers and Ken Summers — now own and run the company.

Freysz does not believe in sign-on bonuses.

“I want somebody to come and work here because they want to work here,” Freysz said. “While it looks good in writing, it can be gimmicky at times.”

He echoed the thoughts of others in the trucking industry: The best recruiting tool is word of mouth. While times are tough for trucking firms, Thompson points out that it's tough all over.

“Everyone in the trucking industry right now is on a level playing field,” he said. “There's not one carrier who is lucking out and has all the drivers. We're all in the same boat.” 

Study: Trucking business will continue to grow

The American Trucking Associations recently released the latest edition of its look at the future of freight to 2025, which shows continued growth for not just the trucking industry but for the freight economy overall.

According to the “ATA U.S. Freight Transportation Forecast to 2025,” overall freight tonnage will grow 23.5 percent from 2013 to 2025 and freight revenues will surge 72 percent.

“We continue to see growth for the entire freight economy — but we also see that trucking will maintain its position as the nation’s dominant mode of freight transportation,” said ATA Senior Vice President and Chief Economist Bob Costello.

Some additional findings from the report:

• Trucking’s share of freight tonnage will grow from 69.1 percent in 2013 to 71.4 percent in 2025.

• Truckload volume will grow 3.5 percent a year through 2019, then 1.2 percent annually from 2020 to 2025; however, truckload carriers will make greater use of intermodal rail for intermediate- and long-distance hauls.

• Rail intermodal tonnage will grow 5.5 percent annually through 2019 and 5.1 percent a year through 2025.

• Railroad market share will shrink from 14.5 percent of all tonnage in 2013 to 13.8 percent in 2025.

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