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Editorial: Hiring championship tank truck drivers

JAMES Starr played a starring role in National Tank Truck Carriers’ 66th Annual Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. There can be no doubt about that.

A 42-year trucking veteran working for Groendyke Transport Inc, Starr made NTTC history as the first recipient of the tank truck association’s new Professional Driver of the Year award. He was one of eight highly qualified and experienced tank truck driver champions who were selected as finalists for the award.

These men are truly some of the best drivers in the tank truck industry, and they are no alone. Tank truck fleets employ some of the most skilled and experienced drivers in trucking. These are technologically savvy professionals who haul some of the most challenging cargoes that are transported on America’s highways. The overwhelming majority of those shipments are handled safely and without incident.

The biggest problem for tank truck carriers is that they can’t find enough drivers that meet their requirements. Plenty of individuals out there have a commercial driver license. The problem is, not enough of them have what it takes to work as a tank truck driver.

That said there is a growing shortage of truck drivers industry wide. Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations, told those at the NTTC annual conference that the industry needs an average of 96,178 new drivers a year over the next 10 years to keep up with projected economic growth.

Factors contributing to the driver shortage include wage levels that are too low. Driver pay has risen, but it is not keeping pace with inflation. Since 2000 when drivers averaged $39,035, average annual pay for an over-the-road driver has increased to just $49,540 to $52,820. That’s not enough, according to Costello.

He added that pay levels contribute to an average annual driver turnover rate that remains near 100% for large truckload fleets and in the 75% range for smaller carriers. Many tank truck carriers report a much lower turnover rate, but it’s still too high.

Adding to the turnover problem is the fact that the truck driver population is aging rapidly. Retirements account for 37% of the turnover.

Jim Shaeffer, president of McKenzie Tank Lines Inc, said in an interview in the April issue of Bulk Transporter that the driver shortage tops the list of key issues for the tank truck industry. He said it is going to take a combination of higher driver compensation and improved working conditions to bring more qualified drivers into tank trucking.

Tank truck carriers need to be more creative in finding new sources of drivers. He pointed out that McKenzie Tank Lines has had good success in recruiting military veterans. “We have a number of great military veterans driving for us in Florida and Georgia,” he said. “They are safety conscious and disciplined, and they embrace our training program.”

Without doubt, one of the biggest issues in recruiting veterans for the truck driving ranks is the fact that the military truck-driving license can’t be converted into a commercial driver license. This problem needs to be fixed by the federal government.

Addressing the age issue for drivers, Shaeffer said it is becoming critical. Tank truck carriers increasingly report that the average age for their drivers is in the 50-year-old range.

“We even have some 70-year-old drivers,” Shaeffer said. “It’s a challenge for the industry, and it is a reflection of the difficulties we face in attracting younger drivers.”

Tank truck carriers clearly are working to address the growing driver shortage. Recent reports in Bulk Transporter and Bulk Logistics Trends, our weekly e-newsletter, have highlighted job fairs and announcements that fleets are raising driver pay. We also report regularly fleet programs to recruit military veterans.

There is no single approach to fixing the driver shortage. Fleets will need to use a variety of strategies if they are to be successful in recruiting individuals that have the potential to become championship-level tank truck drivers.     ♦

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