These days, every truck in JCI Transportation's fleet has a flat-screen television and satellite radio. Company-supplied refrigerators in the cab are becoming the norm, and drivers, if they want, can plug in a microwave.

"We try to give them all the comforts of home," said Larry Mertz, operations director at the Pennsauken trucking company.

On any given day, Mertz, like nearly every trucking executive in the country, is desperately seeking more drivers - the industry needs 47,500 more of them. If an in-cab refrigerator can draw someone, Mertz would probably install it himself.

"We could double our fleet tomorrow," Mertz said Monday, waiting for a session on staffing to start at the American Trucking Associations' (ATA) convention in Philadelphia. The conference ends Tuesday.

"We're turning away as much [work] as we keep," Mertz said. Three months ago, JCI hired a full-time recruiter to find more drivers in an industry also challenged by high turnover.

In the exhibit hall at the Convention Center, shiny polished beauties from Mack and Volvo and Daimler dazzled a crowd of 2,500 attendees, but in the conference sessions, a key topic was a projected shortage of drivers - expected to reach 73,500 nationwide, according to industry projections based on economic growth and demographics.

Signing bonuses are common, with companies paying $1,000 to $1,500 to lure drivers to jump ship, or rather truck, although all the executives interviewed at the convention Monday said they weren't paying bonuses and weren't hiring obvious job-skippers lured by bonuses.

Why the shortage?

Coming out of the recession, a healthier economy leads to more demand for goods and raw materials - much of which moves by truck - and that means more demand for drivers, exacerbating the shortage.

Demographics, regulations, pay, and working conditions all play a part.

"The quality of life isn't good," said Joe Mangino, president of Metropolitan Trucking Inc. in Bloomsburg, Pa. "The drivers aren't treated with respect. People look at them like they are third-class citizens."

Mangino is looking for 15 drivers to round out a team of 350, and employees who refer a successful candidate get bonuses. Besides the in-truck satellite TV, Mangino offers guaranteed weekly minimum pay to cover times when weather makes driving impossible.

With over-the-road truckers able to earn $45,000 to $70,000, payable by mile driven, in theory, pay shouldn't be a problem.

But in practice, drivers sit in traffic or wait hours for their turn at a loading dock, costing them money.

The situation could be addressed by paying drivers by the hour, "but the shipping industry isn't ready for that," said Charles "Shorty" Wittington, a former ATA chairman and owner of Grammer Industries, an Indiana trucking company.

"Shippers are more responsible for the driving shortage than trucking companies," he said, saying that if a driver misses his loading dock time by a minute, the warehouse may push him to the end of the line, waiting for many uncompensated hours.

In some places, drivers aren't even allowed to use the bathroom, Wittington and Mangino said.

Some workers are lost to other industries. Others never get a chance to join.

By law, drivers can't get a CDL Class A commercial driver's license to operate an 18-wheeler on an interstate highway until they are 21, so a high school graduate who yearns to drive a big rig is stymied.

"What's he going to do between the age of 18 and 21?" Mangino said. "If he is industrious, he'll find something to do and then he's lost from the industry."

During the recession, truckers who had work held on to it, but in the recovery, other sectors are drawing drivers - particularly construction.

Construction may be hard work, but at the end of the day, the worker goes home, better than a night at a truck stop.

One potential source of drivers is the military, as many soldiers gain experience driving trucks on the job. Trucking companies are beginning to recruit on military bases. An obstacle is the dovetailing of military experience with civilian requirements for truck drivers.

215-854-2769@JaneVonBergen