Wednesday, December 08, 1999

Big-rig demand drives up pay, perks

Driver shortage aids those in cab

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Pulling a semi-trailer cross country is a lot more comfortable for driver Darryl Warren today than when he started 14 years ago. Better pay. Better insurance. Better equipment.

        “Now we have big old condos,” Mr. Warren, 38, of Greenville, N.C., said as he fueled his truck at the Pilot truck stop at the Richwood exit off Interstate 71/75. “You have TVs, refrigerators, VCRs and a smoother ride. There's a lot more comfort.”

        More than 100 classified ads in the Sunday Enquirer looking for drivers tell the tale: It's a trucker's market.

        Low unemployment combined with huge growth in the more than $370 billion trucking industry means companies have to offer better perks to attract and retain good drivers.

        “If you have a CDL (commercial driver's license) and your record is halfway clean, you can go anywhere,” 29-year veteran driver Rudy Reed of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said as he took a bite of his Belgian waffle at the Hoosier Heartland Travel Center off I-74, just west of Batesville, Ind.

        Trucking company revenues have gone up about 48 percent this decade, according to the American Trucking As sociations (ATA) in Alexandria, Va. The number of trucks on the road has risen 18 percent, bringing the number to 1.7 million. The average driver makes $36,000 annually, up from the low $30,000s just three years ago, said Bob Costello, chief economist with the ATA.

        Trucking is up because confident consumers are buying more products. Also, companies have a new philosophy on how to get goods to the stores. Stores and businesses aren't stockpiling products in warehouses the way they once did. Instead, they rely on trucks to deliver them as they need them, a practice called “just in time.”

        “We are the only mode of transportation that can go from point A to point B. That's been a big help,” Mr. Costello said. “For example, airlines have to get the product from the airport to the company.”

        That translates into a greater need for drivers. “Recruiting is becoming more creative,” Mr. Costello said.

        To attract and keep employees, companies competing for drivers are offering new trucks every three years for long-haul drivers (drivers who don't get home at night).

        They're offering phone cards to call home. Internet access. Cable television at truck stops.

        Ads in the Enquirer promise medical plans, paid holidays, signing bonuses and weekends off. That wasn't the norm a decade ago.

        R&L Carriers, a trucking company off I-71 in Wilmington, hasn't had a hard time retaining drivers. But the company has felt a pinch in the past five years when it comes to recruitment.

        “It's been an upward climb the last five years,” said Mike Murray, general counsel for R&L Carriers.

        The company's ad stands out in the classified ads, offering a $1,000 signing bonus, two consecutive days off a week, bonuses for safe records and free lodging at the employee resort at Fort Myers Beach, Fla., and the employee inn in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

        Signing bonuses, time at home and medical and 401K plans are popular recruitment tools.

        With the push to fill positions and to get goods to companies, some drivers worry about those on the road pushing the speed limit and not meeting government requirements to rest eight hours after 10 hours of driving.

        “There are a lot of bad drivers out there,” said Stephen Brent, a driver from Springfield, Ill., who was headed from Cincinnati to Green Bay, Wis., last week. “You've got a lot of immature people out there.”

        Yet, the fatality rate involving trucks fell to an all-time low in 1998: 2.3 fatal crashes for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In 1988, the rate was 3.5 fatal crashes per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

        Over that period, trucking companies pushed safety through training programs and incentives. Some offer jackets, hats or other tokens for good records. Others companies give cash rewards.

        In February, Tim Stacy of Hazard, Ky., signed on to drive with the national long-haul firm RoadRunner. Along with the new job came a $1,000 signing bonus paid out over the next year. He has incentives to be safe, too.

        “And I'm home every weekend,” said Mr. Stacy, 39, who hauls auto parts from Detroit to Atlanta.

        Controlling when and where they run is important to some drivers. It's one of the key reasons Mr. Reed signed on with a smaller company two years ago.

        “He keeps me running with all the miles I want,” said Mr. Reed, who usually sticks to runs in the Midwest. “I like to stay out of the Northeast — toll roads and too much traffic.”


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