In the trucking industry, the jobs are thicker than bugs on a bumper.
|Instructor Tom Kubicki, of Perrysburg, talking about the transmissions of tractor trailers. Taking the class are, from left, Frank Williams, of Toledo; Mike Dale, of Oregon; Tom McGovern, of Perrysburg, and Josh Tschappat, of Weston. Trainco Inc.Truck Driving school in Perrysburg, Ohio on August 2, 2012 teaches students to be commercial truck drivers, a field that "is projected to have strong growth over the next several years". THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER
Those solid prospects in an otherwise shaky employment picture are what attracted Tony Ricker. A year ago, the 33-year-old Findlay man lost his job as a retail manager. His entire 15-year working career had been in sales, but seeing help-wanted ad after help-wanted ad seeking drivers, he decided to learn to pilot a big rig. He's enrolled in classes now.
"It was never something I thought I'd do," he said. "It's just demand for the job and a great opportunity to take care of my family."
Recruiters and truck driving instructors are seeing hundreds of people like Mr. Ricker -- driven to drive by the weak economy.
And if you can handle an 18-wheeler and the time away from home, jobs aren't too hard to come by.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the number of drivers needed to increase by more than 330,000 between 2010 and 2020. Many in the industry say there's already a shortage of drivers, and hundreds of thousands of retirements are expected in the next couple years.
"They're aging, they're retiring, and we're not keeping up with replacement as much as we'd like to," said Sean McNally, a spokesman for American Trucking Association.
Though some estimate a shortage of more than 200,000 drivers, the American Trucking Association thinks that number is closer to the range of 20,000 to 30,000 drivers -- still enough to create a big problem for trucking companies.
Some recruiters say they could hire a room full of drivers as long as they meet their company's standards.
"We're constantly looking for drivers because we have a lot of freight," said Tammy Helms, an Ohio-based field recruiter with TMC Transportation. "I've been here for 13 years and we've always added drivers on. It's going to be a constant."
TMC Transportation is a large flatbed carrier based in Des Moines. Ms. Helms said the company is actively recruiting drivers across the eastern United States.
One of her regular stops is Trainco Inc., a professional truck-driving school headquartered in Perrysburg. One of the major regional players, Trainco has three Michigan locations, as well as schools in Perrysburg and Norwalk, Ohio. The company also has a partnership with Owens Community College.
Company president Ken Howell said Trainco is having its best year since 2008 and may end up with its best year ever.
"The declining economy has flushed people from all corners of the Earth," said Blackie Blackwell, Trainco's sales manager. "We have so many [people] coming now who thought they would never look at trucking but see there are so many opportunities across all the classes."
Ken Leary was one of them.
The Pemberville man had been in construction all his life, working his way up to a supervisor position with a construction-management business in Columbus. But the sour economy hit his firm hard. Employment there fell from 45 to four. Mr. Leary was one of the last to be let go.
Initially he wanted to go back to school for electronics, but he found his unemployment would run out before he'd be finished with his degree. Consistently seeing ads for truck drivers, about two years ago he decided to give it a shot. Now he's pulling tankers on cross-country hauls for Schwerman Trucking Co.
"This is a great job, a great career for someone looking to change, or who lost a career and looking to reinvent themselves," Mr. Leary said. "This is a very viable solution to get back in the workplace and pay your bills."
Earnings depend on experience and what kind of route is being driven. Typically, cross-country jobs are least desirable because of the time away from home, but they pay the best. Local routes generally pay a little less. But fierce competition for drivers is pushing wages up, Mr. Blackwell said.
"A little while ago I was telling over-the-road drivers you're probably going to pull $40,000 to $43,000. In the last five to six months that's jumped dramatically. If they're really ready to spin those wheels, they could make $45,000 to $55,000 in their first year right out of our school."
Some make even more than that -- experienced truckers might pull down $80,000 a year or more.
Classes generally take four to six weeks. At Trainco, tuition is $3,995.
Trucking remains the most popular way to get products from producer to consumer, with the association reporting 70 percent of tonnage of freight delivered in the United States moves by truck. Some industry people say rising fuel costs work in their favor, as shipping by air becomes too expensive. Shipping by train is cheaper but can be slower, and trucks are still usually needed to get product to the end location. The fracking boom in Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio also has led to more trucking jobs.
Still, a commercial driver's license isn't an absolute guarantee for a job.
"Just because you have a CDL doesn't mean you're going to get hired right away. A lot of these carriers require some level of experience or certifications," Mr. McNally said.
The trucking association found 90 percent of truckload carriers surveyed reported they can't find enough drivers. But the association also found that 88 percent say they are getting applicants who don't meet their standards.
K-Limited Carrier, an 80-truck outfit based in Toledo that hauls chemicals, requires its drivers to be experienced and have hazardous material certification. Finding drivers is becoming increasingly difficult.
"Our standards are higher than the rest of the industry and that makes it more difficult," said Nedal Awada, the company's director of safety and regulatory compliance. "We're slowly finding drivers, but the avenues that we used to find drivers from are no longer working for us, so we're out there trying to find new ways of recruiting. The key to our success is retaining our current drivers."
K-Limited has begun offering its drivers referral bonuses if they help bring in a new employee.
Ms. Awada said the company has nearly enough drivers for its current fleet of trucks, but its business is growing, and it's looking to add both equipment and employees.
"The chemical side of the industry, we have recovered," Ms. Awada said.
One change industry groups and some companies are pushing for are new rules that would ease the transition into a civilian truck driving job for military veterans. Currently the military driver's license isn't completely compatible with CDL rules.
"We're in essentially saying these are men and women who overseas can operate heavy equipment in a combat zone, but they can't drive on a highway. We'd like that transition to smooth out a little bit," Mr. McNally said.
The association is also pushing for Congress to make it easier for veterans to use GI Bill money to pay for truck-driving school.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: email@example.com or 419-724-6134.