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MAKING INROADS: Prime’s Jim Guthrie says classroom space as its new three-story plaza center is utilized daily with new classes for its CDL program beginning every week.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
MAKING INROADS: Prime’s Jim Guthrie says classroom space as its new three-story plaza center is utilized daily with new classes for its CDL program beginning every week.

The Road Ahead: Creative trucking companies face driver shortage

Leaders in the industry boost their recruiting game

Posted online

As the many billboards along roads in and around Springfield signal, there are plenty of driver jobs available in the trucking industry.

It’s nothing new; the need for truck drivers has been ongoing for years. But according to the American Trucking Associations, there will be a shortage of more than 60,000 for-hire, over-the-road drivers by the end of the year. Provided national economic growth continues, the shortage could reach 175,000 by 2026.

Jim Guthrie, director of recruiting with Springfield-based Prime Inc., is all too familiar with the industry’s ongoing driver shortages. But he said it’s an area in which the company has made some inroads, as Prime currently has approximately 7,800 driver associates with a steady growth of 6-8 percent each year for the past three years.

More than 12 percent of the fleet is female drivers – up from 8.4 percent in 2014. Only 6 percent of drivers nationally are women, according to ATA. “We’ve really worked hard to bring more females into the industry,” Guthrie said of its Highway Diamonds program, which started in 2016 and offers support and recognition to female drivers.

He said driver-orientation classes are held every week at the new plaza center in Springfield, with one of the sessions in July setting a record 215 people in attendance. Guthrie said 180 were first-time drivers ready to embark on a commercial driver’s license training program.

In the four- to six-month long program, participants receive their CDL in about three weeks and train the remainder of the time until they are in a position to operate their own truck, Guthrie said.

That’s not to say Springfield residents are flooding Prime to become truck drivers. Most of Prime’s drivers are recruited nationally.

“There’s just not near enough local people to fulfill all the needs. … We have to branch out,” he said, adding Prime hires trainees over experienced drivers at a nearly 5-to-1 ratio. “The industry, in general, is definitely struggling for getting those positions filled. We’re doing well because of our training program. That’s critical to our success. There’s not much in the way of experienced drivers.”

Companies growing its own driver base, such as Prime, provide people a path forward to a career, said Tom Crawford, Missouri Trucking Association president and CEO. Still, every MTA meeting includes discussions of the driver shortage.

“If anybody had the magic formula for that, they’d be winning,” Crawford said.

He said sign-on bonuses have become a common practice for prospective hires.

Guthrie said much of Prime’s drawing power is referral driven. Additionally, the company engages on social media and partners with Springfield agency Campaignium for digital marketing efforts.

Guthrie said Prime has a culture that revolves around improving the quality of life for its drivers, which includes investment into its facilities. In just the past year, the company has poured more than $40 million into improvements on its northeast Springfield campus, said Marketing Manager Clayton Brown.

In November 2017, Prime opened a three-story, 62,164-square-foot plaza center, which includes administrative offices, classrooms, locker rooms with showers and a 14-bay truck area. Adjacent to it is an expanded training pad for the CDL training.

Two educational facilities in Springfield – Ozarks Technical Community College and Midwest Technical Institute Inc. – also have had experience with CDL programs in recent years. In 2015, OTC ended its eight-year program after a financial review determined it was no longer economically viable to continue, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. Low student participation and the end of grant funding contributed to the decision.

However, Springfield, Illinois-based MTI currently offers a 20-day CDL training course at its South Glenstone Avenue school with a driver training pad on West Sunshine Street between Republic and Springfield. The course includes 40 hours in the classroom, 16 hours on the range, 16 hours over-the-road and 96 hours of remedial training, according to its website. Vonnie Sloan, registrar, said the program has been offered since 2013 and currently has about 20 students enrolled. That total is about average for the program, she added.

Even as drivers seek training to fill the industry gaps, David Mitchell, an economics professor at Missouri State University, wonders if truck-driving jobs will be there down the road. He said automation is creeping into other industries and could enter the trucking industry, too. Factors of liability and safety will likely keep the issue at bay for quite a while, he added.

“I don’t see that as a five to 10 years issue,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s more of a 20-plus years problem away.”

Even if automation becomes a part of the industry, Mitchell said he believes in its ability to adapt to the changes.

“The industry as a whole is going to be fine going forward,” he added.

With the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting a 6 percent growth rate from 2016 to 2026 for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, MTA’s Crawford said the industry is showing no signs of slowing down.

“It’s an exciting time to be in trucking,” Crawford said. “We kind of say it tongue in cheek, but trucking drives the economy.”

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