Trucking firms offer up to $8,000 bonus and other deals to lure drivers

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A USA TODAY investigation finds America’s retail giants have spent a decade ignoring signs of labor abuse in their supply chains, sometimes fighting government efforts to crack down, even as thousands of truckers were driven into debt and poverty.
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Towing a tanker full of milk from Florida, professional driver Joe Woodson pulls off for eggs and coffee at a massive Pilot Flying J truck stop in West Memphis.

Among the heavy trucks refueling at the diesel pumps are some that show the new sign of the times: Ads recruiting truck drivers.

Woodson sees these ads regularly on passing trucks during his milk run to Little Rock, Ark. Posted on semi-trailers, the ads boast experienced heavy-truck drivers can land big bonuses, up to $8,000.

And it’s not the only inducement to change jobs:

•Covenant Transport of Chattanooga offers drivers a run home every other week and guarantees $100-per-day late pay.

•Total Transportation of Richland, Miss., touts it will pay weigh-in fees and provide a $2,500 signing bonus.

•Crete Carrier of Lincoln., Neb., boasts 7% more mileage than the industry norm. Shaffer, an arm of Crete, advertises permissible 65-mile-per-hour cruise speeds.

•Forward Air of Greenville, Tenn., notes a two-driver team can travel 5,800 miles every week, gross up to $392,000 per year before expenses.

•Watson Shepard Trucking of Helena, Mont., claims “world class” freight dispatchers and offers a $100 bonus for each extra week on the road.

•Summit Trucking of Clarksville, Ind., pledges drivers can get home every other day.

Almost 400,000 people nationwide obtain commercial driver licenses every year. But the nomadic life and low pay fuels constant turnover. Trucking executives warn the country is desperately short of drivers to run the nation’s fleet of 4 million heavy freight trucks, known as Class 8 vehicles.

While the American Trucking Association, a trade group near Washington, says truck lines immediately need 50,000 more drivers, an owner-operator group contends plenty of drivers are available. In short supply is freight.

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Too many trucks and truck lines have caused the big truck companies to actively turn over the staff of drivers in a bid to raise profit by recruiting novice drivers at lower compensation, said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, an organization in Grain Valley, Mo., representing about 160,000 owner-operators.

“People talk about the driver shortage. What they’re really talking about is turnover,” Spencer said. “It’s a really tough job. You work hard and you work a lot. There’s lots and lots of personal sacrifice. People get tired of the stress and leave.”

Is better pay the answer?

Bob Costello, chief economist of the American Trucking Association, said truck lines need to raise compensation for drivers, though the shortage is real. Many drivers are in their 50s and 60s. As they retire the shortage could exceed 174,000 drivers in seven years if the recruiting efforts fall short, ATA predicts.

“Unless steps are taken to make it easier for individuals to pursue careers in trucking, demand for drivers will continue to outstrip supply – eventually even leading to supply chain disruptions,” Costello warned.

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Annual compensation among the country’s 3.5 million Class 8 drivers averages about $50,000 to $60,000 — the same level as in the early 1980s.

‘Ain’t no shortage’

“There ain’t no shortage of drivers,” said Amy Key, 44, who travels with husband Randy of Key Key Trucking of Malvern, Ark. “Everyone wants to be a truck driver. They think there’s so much money in it.”

Yet hundreds of truck lines have ramped up recruiting staffs and promised touches especially appealing to professional drivers.

 “A lot of people don’t know that if a company has to bribe you to work for them something’s wrong,” said Annette Sammis, 55, of Oak Ridge, Tenn., a driver for Fraley and Schilling truck line of Rushville, Ind.

Sammis, a professional driver since 2008, said the driver turnover traces to low pay, a nomadic lifestyle and privacy concerns including cameras in the cab monitoring every move and the mandatory use, beginning Dec. 18, of electronic log devices known as ELDs.

By monitoring the vehicle’s operating time, many drivers fear, ELD will force them to curb their actual driving time to the legal limit of 11 hours per day. Truck executives expect more than 10% of owner-operators will leave the business once ELDs begin to restrict income. 

Watching the industry’s turmoil from the cab of his milk tanker is Woodson.

After the 2008 recession wiped out bridge construction work, Woodson, 51, a long-time New Yorker, found his way to Williams Dairy Trucking of Baxley, Ga. Lately he’s noticed the ads promising lofty bonuses for truck drivers.

He’s not ready to jump to a new employer.

“Most truck drivers want to be close to home. Most have families,” Woodson said. “They can be out on the road a month at a time. I don’t want to live like that.’’

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