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October 29, 2018
Focus: Transportation & Infrastructure

No. 1 issue for Maine's trucking industry? A serious shortage of drivers

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Brian Parke, president and CEO of the Augusta-based Maine Motor Transport Association, says the industry is doing more to tackle the shortage of drivers.

Maine's trucking industry is booming, helped by a strong economy and industries with an increased need for trucking services. But there's one serious impediment to trucking's continued growth.

"The driver shortage is the very No. 1 issue in the trucking industry right now, bar none, hands down," says Brian Parke, president and CEO of the Augusta-based Maine Motor Transport Association.

Two of Maine's biggest trucking companies, both based in Bangor with additional facilities elsewhere in and out of Maine, are on the lookout for drivers. Hartt Transportation could use 55 to 60 more in Maine and more in other regions, up to 100 overall. Pottle's Transportation could use five or six more. Pottle has 230 drivers and 183 tractor-trailers in Maine and South Carolina.

"We need to be able to fill our trucks and continue to grow, because the business climate in Maine, over the last few years, has grown tremendously, with more businesses opening up, expanding and having the need for us to provide our services," says Hartt President Jeff Castonguay. "The problem is, we can't find enough qualified drivers. The other big issue is lack of mechanics. We have to make sure our equipment is well-maintained."

"The smaller guys are having a harder time finding truck drivers," says President Mark Chamberland. "There's not a big pool of people in Aroostook County."

Smaller companies, like R.F. Chamberland in St. Agatha in northern Maine, also face shortages. Chamberland has 85 drivers and 60 tractor-trailers.

Stuff to move

The shortage of drivers and mechanics is tied to demand for trucking services, and that is a product of a strong economy.

"The economy is doing better and, when the economy does better, there's more freight to move," explains Parke. "Right now there's a capacity crunch. Manufacturers and retailers, and even tourism to a smaller extent, are seeing they've got stuff to move and there are fewer drivers."

Maine's situation reflects the nation's. By 2026, the nation will need 175,000 more drivers, according to the state trade association.

Industry growth can be seen in Hartt's evolution. In 2000, when Castonguay came on, the company had 65 drivers. Today, it employs 275 in Maine and 440 full-and part-time drivers overall, running 400 tractor-trailers. It also has contracts with 165 independent haulers. Hartt opened a terminal in Auburn four years ago to accommodate expansion of its customer base there, primarily Poland Spring Water.

Industry leaders cite factors causing the shortage that include a looming retirement cliff; the industry's median age is 46.5, says the American Transportation Research Institute. Recruiting younger drivers is difficult. Leaders say trucking doesn't have a positive image and regulations are onerous. Some younger drivers reject long hauls in favor of going home each night.

"We have more people retiring than are coming in," says Parke. He adds, "It's not a matter of someone deciding to become a truck driver and getting their CDL [commercial driver's license] tomorrow. There are insurance and oversight requirements."

Medical and security qualifications are among those needed to obtain a CDL. The training itself can run as high as $6,500. Trucking companies face factors like drug tests, insurance costs and monitoring.

Insurance is a Catch-22. Many insurance companies require new drivers to have two years of experience before they'll take on the driver.

"You can't get the experience until you're able to be insured," says Parke. "So some people work in-state for a while — hauling dump trucks, working in a yard facility, working in the forest products industry — in order to gain experience."

Potholes in the road

Photo / Jason Paige Smith
Photo / Jason Paige Smith
Barry Pottle, president and CEO of Pottle’s Transportation, expects to hire more drivers and is increasing driver pay.

One obstacle to attracting younger drivers is the federal requirement that interstate CDL holders be 21 or older.

"A lot of times, by the time kids who don't go to college have turned 21, they've already chosen another profession, like carpentry or plumbing," says Barry Pottle, Pottle's Transportation president and CEO.

The industry also has image problems. Parke says trucking is not a widely accepted career for young people these days, as high schools promote four-year colleges.

Also, customers can be disrespectful.

"Say I drive all night to deliver product to the receiver, I take my paperwork in and say, 'Can I use your bathroom?'" Pottle recounts. "He says, 'Go to the 7-Eleven down the street.' Half an hour later, the mailman comes and asks, 'Can I use your bathroom?' The receiver says, 'Yeah, come on in.' Receivers have to treat drivers better."

Pottle says his Bangor warehouse is designed for driver comfort, including a nice waiting area, his and her bathrooms, refrigerator with water and soda and microwave.

"They're not treated like second-class people," Pottle says. "We want those drivers to come back."

Castonguay says Hartt's customers generally treat drivers "like gold." But if a driver has a negative experience, "We'll be in that customer's office and say, 'Get your act straight or we're not hauling for you."

Offering a range of pay

Vicki Kimball, a commercial truck driving instructor at Tri-County Technical Center in Dexter, says the shortage of drivers is driving up pay rates. Graduates of the program start at $13 or $14 per hour and quickly move to $20 or more, depending on the job. She cites one student making $36,000 plus benefits within six months of graduating.

"I think companies are realizing that getting and keeping a good driver they're going to have to pay for them," she says.

"Truck-driving jobs now range from $45,000 to over $100,000 per year, depending on which company and your level of experience," says Castonguay. "The same with technicians. They can start at $45,000 and, with experience and time, be in the upper 80s or lower 90s, plus lots of benefits, like matching company contributions for 401(k) plans, affordable health care and paid vacations."

Parke says many are attracted to the profession's freedom: "They don't want a boss looking over their shoulder."

On the other hand, notes Castonguay, "freedom" can be stressful on families. Many drivers look for short-haul jobs so they can get home at night. Either way, he says, "If you're a truck driver, you're always going to have a job and you're going to get excellent pay and benefits."

Expanding the labor pool

To combat the driver shortage, the industry is expanding training programs. It's doing presentations at high schools. It's also recruiting veterans, women, immigrants and people seeking a second career.

Pottle, the newly elected chairman of the American Trucking Associations, says national initiatives include promoting the profession, expanded training and apprenticeship programs through community colleges, high schools and agencies like Job Corps, outreach to veterans and U.S. Department of Labor resources. The trade group is also working with Maine's congressional delegation on federal issues like modifying the age barrier for interstate commerce.

Other industries are reaching out to driver training programs. At Tri-County, Weyerhaeuser, the timberlands and wood products company, contacted Kimball about setting up a module in log truck driving and loading. Expected to begin this year, the module could lead to summer driving internships or apprenticeships.

Shifting into a second career

Hartt's initiatives include working with Eastern Maine Community College to develop training programs; setting up apprenticeships for promising graduates; and reaching out to law enforcement, firefighter and military retirees considering a second career. A recent recruit is a former Bath Iron Works manager who wanted to change career, trained in truck driving and contacted Castonguay, who tailored an apprenticeship for him.

"He's turning into one of our best truck drivers — extremely safe and reliable, shows up on time, always has suggestions on how to handle things," he says.

Hartt also implemented a retention program that focuses on open communication on a schedule to get input on concerns employees might have, then correct the situation if possible. Programs also include holiday and driver appreciation parties.

"We shake their hands, hear what they have to say and let them know they can talk with any one of our management team," he says. "The biggest thing is, we want them to know how important they are to our company."

In a high-turnover market — 94% nationally as large carriers compete for drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations — Hartt's 32% turnover in 2017 indicates the programs are working, although there's more to be done, he says.

Pay increases and incentives have helped recruitment and retention at Pottle's and Chamberland: Pottle's implemented a 9% pay increase this year and a 2-cents-per-mile incentive. In the past 18 months, Chamberland instituted a 25% wage increase.

Slim margins

Higher wages contribute to increased costs. So do equipment improvements — like emission controls and lighter trailers and electronics, like logging devices to monitor driver hours.

Hartt has incurred increases every year for the past five to six years, says Castonguay. Equipment is up 5% to 10% in the last two years. Wages are up, the past year, as much as 10%.

Impact on the bottom line?

"In trucking, we operate on slim margins," Castonguay says. "The impact on customers is tremendous. Eventually, we'll see that in the price of the products we buy."

Overall, says Castonguay, there has to be a way to get students interested in trade jobs. That starts with educating the educators about the value of trade schools, as they talk with students who are pondering careers, he says.

"Lots of kids don't want to go to college or can't afford to," he says. "Trade schools are an excellent means to have good jobs that pay competitive wages, with excellent benefits and job security. Hopefully we can convince our young that they do not have to leave the state of Maine and they can stake their roots here in Maine with promising careers in trucking, whether it is becoming a professional driver or becoming a professional mechanic. Trucking is not going away. Most everything you touch has been moved by a truck. We need to have drivers and mechanics so we can continue to help the economy expand."

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