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Companies are struggling to find truck drivers

YORK, Pa. - A nationwide shortage of long-haul truck drivers is hitting home for trucking company owners such as Jim Germak.

YORK, Pa. - A nationwide shortage of long-haul truck drivers is hitting home for trucking company owners such as Jim Germak.

Five or six of Germak's 40 trucks are not on the road because the company cannot find all the drivers it needs, said Germak, the owner of Jagtrux in Marietta, Lancaster County. And in York, one trucking business owner has even started his own driving school to try to find more drivers.

To deal with the problem, Germak has raised his drivers' pay 8 percent, tweaked schedules so drivers get more time at home, and had the company's dispatchers adjust routes so drivers can make it home for their children's Little League games and other family events.

Germak has also outfitted his company's trucks with driver-friendly features, including refrigerators, stronger heating and air-conditioning systems, and comfier driver's seats.

"We probably have every amenity available," he said.

Germak has plenty of company in trying to find drivers at a time when the industry as a whole faces a nationwide shortfall.

The shortage is expected to reach a record 47,500 by the end of 2015. It's on pace to grow to 73,500 next year and approach 175,000 by 2024, according to an October report from the American Trucking Associations, the industry's trade group.

"Every one of my members is looking for drivers," said Jim Runk, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association.

Runk, who has been in the trucking industry for 47 years, calls the shortage "as bad now as it's ever been."

The shortage of drivers threatens to put the brakes on an industry that moves almost 70 percent of the nation's freight, the American Trucking Associations said in its report.

"If the trend stays on course, there will likely be severe supply chain disruptions resulting in significant shipping delays, higher inventory carrying costs, and perhaps shortages in stores," the report said.

"It's getting to the point where it affects John Q. Public," said Steve Shellenberger, chairman of S&H Express in York.

A new pipeline

Shellenberger knows about the crisis firsthand. He needs to hire 50 to 75 drivers a year just to keep up with his trucking companies' current workload. S&H started its own school, called Shelly Truck Driving School, to develop a pipeline of new drivers.

The company launched the school in 2013 to train drivers for S&H Express and the other trucking companies Shellenberger owns. The school opened its enrollment to the public in 2014. About half of the graduates go to work for S&H or one of Shellenberger's other companies.

"The school is one solution for us," said Shellenberger, who has also hired drivers from Costa Rica on a short-term basis.

Truck driving is a high-paying field. For tractor-trailer drivers, the median pay - meaning half made more and half made less - was $38,200 in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Shellenberger said his drivers make in the $40,000s to $70,000s, and some make more than $100,000 a year.

The median starting salary for graduates of Harrisburg Area Community College's truck-driving program is $19.87 an hour - more than $41,000 a year, said Dan Wagner, HACC's director of industry skills and services.

Limited appeal

The program, which is six weeks for those who attend during the day or nine or 10 weeks for those who attend on nights and weekends, costs $5,100. The state picks up the cost for jobless people looking to get back into the workforce.

Most of those in the program are people between the ages of 35 and 55 who have lost their job or want to change careers. More than 90 percent are men.

Despite the relatively high pay, there are a variety of reasons why trucking firms are struggling more than ever to find drivers, industry experts say.

Baby boomers are reaching retirement age. The median age for long-haul drivers is 49. Meanwhile, experienced drivers are switching companies lured by newer equipment, better pay and perks, and signing bonuses that Germak said he had heard can range up to $5,000.

Long-haul trucking, with its long hours behind the wheel and days away from home, has always had a limited appeal for some.

The inability to be home every night has made it hard to recruit women, who account for just 6 percent of the industry. And rules that bar drivers younger than 21 from driving interstate routes has caused people coming out of high school to gravitate to construction or service-industry jobs, the American Trucking Associations report noted.

But the recovering U.S. economy has made the shortage more severe.

During the recession, which ended in 2009, and in the years immediately after, demand from consumers for goods and by manufacturers for parts and components was weak. Trucking companies weren't delivering as many orders, so they could get by with fewer drivers.

The economy has picked up since, and so has the need for drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations report.

Going the extra mile

A&S Kinard in York County takes a multipronged approach to recruiting the 400 to 500 drivers the company hires each year. The company has doubled the size of its local recruiting team, to four. It has taken out billboards and run ads on radio, television, and Craigslist.

A&S Kinard recruiters also manned a booth at the Carlisle Truck Nationals in August to recruit drivers to work out of the company's Carlisle truck terminal. And the company is also offering a $1,500 sign-on bonus for regional drivers.

"We're constantly looking for new ways to hire quality drivers," said Joseph Serio, A&S Kinard's executive vice president of sales and recruiting.

Meanwhile, the driver shortage is providing opportunities for folks who want to become long-haul truck drivers, like Toby McGuigan, a student at Shelly Truck Driving School.

McGuigan, 33, who has been a tow-truck driver and crane operator, said he enrolled in the program because of the freedom of being "your own boss" and the job opportunities. He already has a job offer from S&H Express once he graduates.

"There's so much opportunity, not to mention good money," he said.