Milwaukee, nation impacted by truck driver shortage

Manufacturing, Distribution & Logistics

Steve Baas
Steve Baas

Milwaukee, and the nation as a whole, has been experiencing a shortage of truck drivers for the past five years or so. It is a problem that industry insiders expect will continue, and even worsen, in the coming years.

“It’s tough to find drivers,” said Tami Larson, president and chief executive officer of West Allis-based Direct Drive Express. “They’re just not going into the industry.”

Local trucking companies say they have been experiencing a driver shortage for the past three to five years.
Local trucking companies say they have been experiencing a driver shortage for the past three to five years.

The baby boomer generation is retiring, and not as many drivers are coming into the industry as are leaving it, added Todd Jeske, vice president of operations for Direct Drive Express.

“It used to be the wife would stay at home, and truck drivers could go on the road for a few days,” Larson said. “Now they need to be home with their family, and both parents need to be involved. One can’t be on the road for two weeks at a time.”

Younger generations also want more of a life-work balance, and do not want to give up their weekends, according to Tim Kreilkamp, president of Allenton-based Kreilkamp Trucking Inc.

Other factors making it difficult to find drivers are that many insurance companies recommend drivers be at least 23 years of age and have a minimum of two years of truck driving experience.

This is not always a problem for the bigger trucking companies that are self-insured, but for smaller companies, it can make it difficult to hire new drivers.

For one, those who would have considered truck driving as a career must find another line of work in the time period between high school and their 23rd birthday.

“Meanwhile they’ll get a different job and have four or five years invested in a trade,” Jeske said. “Why start over?”

Secondly, smaller truck driving companies have a smaller pool of candidates to choose from as the two-year minimum of experience keeps them from hiring those fresh out of truck driving school.

Although Larson said Direct Drive Express is not currently too impacted by the shortage, she said the company for the first time earlier this year did radio advertising and implemented a sign-on bonus in order to find more qualified drivers.

Jon Teraoka, chief executive officer of New Berlin-based third-party logistics provider W.I.S. Logistics, also said it is challenging to find good drivers. In fact, he said typically for every 100 applicants, one is qualified.

For the most part, anyone can learn how to drive a truck, he said, especially since many trucks have become automatic; but they must have a clean driving record.

Finding qualified drivers proves not only a challenge for trucking companies, but also a detriment to their business, according to Larson.

“If you don’t have someone to drive the freight your customer wants you to move, you can’t grow,” she said.

Larson said Direct Drive Express has never had to turn down business, but last year it did rely on some dispatchers with previous truck driving experience to step in occasionally.

The shortage problem also extends beyond the trucking industry.

“Say as a manufacturer you’re having 50 percent growth and you just successfully negotiated three major contracts,” Teraoka said. “You have all this business coming, but you still have to find someone to haul all that freight.”

With more freight than drivers available to move it, Larson said it could lead to an increase in rates.

Teraoka said the shortage has been an issue for the past five years, and he predicts it will continue for the next six to eight years.

“Every year, it gets a little tighter and tighter,” Larson said.

From a manufacturing standpoint, Rick Sievert of Waukesha-based HUSCO International Inc. said truck capacity is currently adequate, but he agreed driver capacity is tight.

“From our discussion with trucking companies, it’ll probably worsen in the next 18 to 36 months as drivers start to retire,” said Sievert, vice president of global supply strategy. “It’s one of those things that’s on the horizon that we know will hit us.”

One of the ways HUSCO is preparing for the shortage is by having discussions with freight companies and making sure they have a strategy to retain and attract drivers.

“It will come down to recruiting the next generation of truckers,” Sievert said.

Younger drivers will want consistency in their routes, he said, while Kreilkamp believes they need higher salaries and more flexibility.

“They have to get to $100,000 in pay and not have to work the weekends,” Kreilkamp said. Currently, his drivers make about $65,000 a year.

Teraoka thinks drivers already make good money – $45,000 to $100,000 – but the public’s mindset has to change.

“Years ago everyone wanted a college degree, and today it’s more about finding skilled labor,” he said. “Driving is another skill.”

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