When it comes to trouble finding skilled employees, trucking isn’t alone. From manufacturers to technology companies, nursing homes to schools, organizations complain qualified employees are increasingly hard to recruit.
Despite an 8.3 percent national unemployment rate in July, almost half of U.S. employers are having trouble filling mission-critical positions, according to ManpowerGroup, a $22 billion global work force development firm.
“That so many employers continue to identify talent shortages as a barrier to their business goals defies prevailing logic, especially when viewed against the high levels of unemployment,” the company said in its seventh annual Talent Shortage Survey, released in May. “Overwhelmingly, a lack of available candidates with the right technical expertise and employability skills continues to vex employers.”
A high number of U.S. employers —55 percent — complain they don’t even always get applicants when jobs are posted locally, despite the fact that about 12.8 million Americans are unemployed jobseekers. Anecdotally, at least, that points to a big gap in expectations between would-be employers and potential employees.
Trucking companies that complain of a shortage of available truck drivers should look beyond the truck cab at how other types of businesses — including, in many cases, their own customers — are dealing with similar problems.
Drivers ranked sixth on ManpowerGroup’s list of the 10 hardest jobs to fill in 2012. That’s actually a drop from fourth place in 2011 and fifth place in 2010. Even in 2009, during the depths of the recession, drivers ranked seventh on the list.
Skilled trades workers, engineers, IT staff, sales representatives and accounting and finance professionals all ranked above truckers on this year’s hard-to-hire list, which also included mechanics, nurses, machinists and, at No. 10, teachers.
“I worry about a mechanic shortage, which we don’t hear much talk about,” Rob Estes, president of Estes Express in Richmond, Va., said at a recent National Industrial Transportation League forum in Washington. As the United States’ largest privately owned less-than-truckload carrier, Estes Express doesn’t have as much trouble hiring drivers as a truckload carrier would. “Our drivers get home every night and tend to be a little better paid,” Estes said.
But he still faces hiring challenges. “Very few people could guess where we have the hardest time finding drivers,” he said. “It’s Fargo, N.D., because of all the fracking work. People can make $30 an hour driving a water truck” for an oil or gas hydraulic fracturing outfit, he said.
That illustrates part of the broader problem ManpowerGroup points to in its survey: Skilled workers increasingly are aware of their value and are taking their skills to the highest bidder. That’s why shale drilling outfits can poach drivers from trucking.
“Individuals with in-demand skills will become more selective as they evaluate their employment options, compelling companies to develop better recruitment and retention strategies,” ManpowerGroup said. That’s a priority for companies such as Con-way Truckload. With a driver turnover rate of 68 percent, “we’re doing a pretty good job of holding onto our drivers, but it takes a lot of effort to do that,” said Bert Johnson, senior director of human resources and driver recruitment.
Not all experts believe skills shortages are a driving factor behind high unemployment. In its 2011 annual report, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta said the skills’ mismatch “accounted for some of the slowness (in hiring), but was not a primary cause of high unemployment ... Shortages of workers with certain skills and in certain industries have always existed, and this problem did not appear to be more widespread in 2011 than it was before the recession.”
The Atlanta Fed noted a National Federal of Independent Business survey last year found that 32 percent of businesses had few or no qualified applicants for job openings, but that was down 11 percentage points from a 2007 NFIB survey.
But shortages of skilled workers tend to worsen during an economic recovery, even a modest, uneven and often slow recovery like the current one. Demand for skilled and experienced factory workers or truck drivers drops when plants shut down and warehouses and loading docks stand empty. That’s also when companies gut recruitment departments and training programs, which exacerbates skills shortages when economic recovery arrives and demand rises.
There’s another reason skills shortages persist: Employers get used to them. “Organizations have become more comfortable and adept at conducting business in an uncertain environment where systematic shortages of talent persist,” ManpowerGroup said. In trucking, there always were more drivers to hire. From 2003 through 2007, the last economic recovery cycle, the number of heavy-truck or tractor-trailer drivers on company payrolls in the U.S. increased 10.8 percent, despite claims of a severe driver shortage, particularly in 2004.
The Labor Department considers truck driving “unskilled” work, meaning it doesn’t require more than a high-school diploma and some training. But the level of skill and knowledge required not just to operate a truck but also to handle the business of trucking and comply with federal regulations increases almost every year.
Trucking companies, concerned about their safety profile and potential legal liability in accident lawsuits, are getting increasingly picky about who they hire.
There’s no shortage of people willing to apply for trucking work, they say, but a shortage of qualified candidates with the necessary over-the-road experience, typically at least two years on the highway, and clean driving records.
ManpowerGroup urges companies to break the “crisis and complacency” cycle that, over time, deepens skills shortages. Organizations need to adopt “a new mindset regarding talent development, where ‘upskilling’ their existing employees and developing candidates with potential becomes the norm rather than the exception.”
For trucking operators, that could mean investing more in training less experienced or inexperienced employees and partnering with vocational schools.
That’s a route Con-way Truckload is taking. “We recognized quite some time ago we needed to supplement our experienced driver pool with a robust student driver program,” Johnson said. “If we do our job on the front end and treat that student driver the right way, we can hold onto that driver for a lifetime.”