Truckload carriers compete for drivers as US freight demand heats up

Truckload carriers compete for drivers as US freight demand heats up

Schneider National is looking for more than just a few good drivers. The largest privately owned U.S. truckload carrier wants to hire 100 drivers in the region around Birmingham, Alabama, to bolster its fast-growing dedicated trucking business and other operations in the South.

Like many of its truckload competitors, the $3.6 billion trucking operator is willing to pay more to secure the truck drivers needed to deliver trucking capacity to its shipper customers. Back in May, the company’s tank truck division boosted driver pay by $4,000 a year on average.

Annual pay for the dedicated driving jobs in Alabama could run as high as $64,000, the company said. Company tank drivers can earn as much as $81,000 a year, and pay in most other divisions can reach $70,000 a year — $30,000 above the average pay for U.S. truck drivers.

Schneider also wants 150 drivers in the Dallas-Forth Worth region, where it is willing to pay signing bonuses of up to $7,500. “Customer demand in Texas — the Metroplex particularly — is incredibly strong across all of our divisions,” said Rob Reich, Schneider senior vice president.

This season is certainly the summer of the driver, as trucking companies led by the nation’s largest truckload carriers begin to raise pay and offer incentives to attract new drivers to their fleets and keep their current drivers happy, employed and behind the truck cab wheel.

Trucking companies are struggling to find drivers before the fall peak shipping season for trucking kicks into gear in September. They’re approaching that peak following strong second and early third quarters, with freight demand and pricing unusually high in July and August.

The inability to hire enough drivers means more parked or “unseated” trucks at carriers and concerns shippers seeking additional capacity as demand for goods and products rises. The escalating driver shortage has become the leading check on over-the-road truck capacity.

U.S. Xpress Enterprises, the sixth-largest U.S. truckload carrier, raised solo driver pay 13 percent Aug. 25, the largest single pay increase in the company’s 28-year history. That boosted annual pay for solo drivers into the high $40,000s to low $50,000s, the carrier said.

Starting Sept. 1, Transport America will increase pay for new and experienced drivers by 1 to 4 cents per mile, depending on the type of driving required and experience. Pay for experienced drivers will start at 43 cents per mile, and for new drivers as high as 40 cents a mile.

The pay increases at Transport America, recently acquired by Canada’s TransForce, will affect solo, team and regional company drivers and owner-operators, the company said. The truckload carrier also expanded and accelerated its “pay for performance” incentive program.

Other carriers increasing driver pay include Swift Transportation, Con-way Truckload and many more. Knight Transportation Chairman and CEO Kevin Knight earlier this year said driver pay would have to rise 15 to 25 percent for carriers to keep up with rising freight demand.

Carrier executives who aren’t convinced higher driver pay is necessary should review a recent driver survey conducted by National Retail Systems. Of the approximately 2,000 drivers polled, 79 percent said salary was the most important factor they considered when choosing a job.

This may be why: The average annual wage for a heavy truck or tractor-trailer driver in 2013 was $40,960, a 1.4 percent increase from 2012 but 11.8 percent below the U.S. average wage for all occupations of $46,440 a year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of tractor-trailer drivers in the U.S. dropped 13.4 percent from 2007 through 2010, returning to levels not seen since the late 1990s, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since 2010, the driver population has increased 8.1 percent.

That still leaves the number of truck drivers 6.4 percent below its 2007 peak, and the rate of increase in driver numbers has been slowing, rising 1.9 percent last year after climbing 3.2 percent in 2012 and 2.9 percent in 2011, according to an analysis of the BLS data.

“The only ones winning are the job recruitment companies because there is so much demand for truck drivers,” said Chris Saville, NRS marketing director. “This is only going to get worse as time goes on, and where will we be if there are not enough truck drivers?”

Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com and follow him on Twitter: @wbcassidy_joc.