Trucking takes a different route

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on April 23, 2007.

Ledell Hayward can get to sounding pretty poetic when he starts talking about some of the sights he's seen.

"The farms, the animals - you just see different things. That's good," he said. "And the sunsets ... "

He trails off, looking away from the truck stop fried chicken on his plate at Travel Center of America in Baldwin, looking into the distance.

Hayward has experienced plenty of sunsets in the past 10 years as he's captained a big rig hauling all sorts of cargo to all sorts of places.

But he hasn't always been cruising down the open road looking at the scenery. Before sliding into the truck, the 38-year-old was working as a nurse, a job he packed in to go to driving school in Sanford.

"It's very relaxing," he said about over-the-road trucking, speaking during a break from hauling recycled paper to Jacksonville from Atlanta. "Just driving down the road, everything. And it's better pay than being a nurse."

A black man from New Orleans, a former nurse, a man who fell in love with the open road - Hayward and people like him are the future of trucking, say those in the industry: People who have had other careers, people who are older, people who don't fit the traditional mold of young white guys who historically have decided that life in a big rig is for them.

The main reason for the shift: Not enough people who traditionally made that decision are now doing so. Whether it's the desire to be home more than a few nights a month, the lure of similar pay offered by the construction industry or reasons unknown, trucking companies have an on-going need for more people to drive those trucks.

"There's a great shortage of drivers," said Mike Norder, a spokesman for Schneider National Inc., a big player in the trucking industry and one of the leaders in trying to attract "non-traditional drivers."

"In order for us to provide solutions to our customers," he said, "we need to be as creative as possible in making sure we have enough drivers."

The dearth of drivers is in stark contrast to international trade statistics, which show $2.2 trillion worth of goods and services were imported into the United States in 2006, up from $1.2 trillion in 1999.

Just in February of this year, $39.6 billion worth of consumer goods ranging from appliances to books were brought into the country, up $8.6 billion from February 2006.

As those goods made their way from ships and airplanes to store shelves, they spent at least part of their time on a truck.

The number of truckers, though, has barely budged over the past years, rising only about 4 percent between 1999 and 2005, the latest figures available.

"We have an industry-wide shortage of drivers," said Eric Reller, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, an industry trade group that estimates companies need an additional 111,000 drivers. "We're opening up to many more demographics."

A convoy of couples

One of the groups the industry has been most open to is older drivers, people over 50 who are looking for retirement income or a way to see the country.

Fifty-six-year-old John Proffitt, for example, decided to give trucking a go when he saw the 401(k) program offered by Schneider. "I saw the benefits package, that I can contribute up to 50 percent of income pre-tax into retirement," he said, "and you know, that made a lot of sense."

For the past six months, he's been part of a driving team with his wife, Laurel - they were married during a stop over in Reno in March, parking the truck in front of four parking meters near the wedding chapel - doing a job that has carried them through 46 states.

The job fits their place in life, the couple said. John had earned a master's degree in counseling and Laurel had just returned from a few years on the mission field in Guatemala, and neither could find jobs that brought in the type of money they were looking for. Entry-level drivers in Jacksonville, according to Schneider, average between $34,500 and $42,500 their first year, bumping up to about $53,000 four years later. With entry-level counseling jobs paying about $25,000 - and with team drivers potentially making double what individual drivers earn - trucking came with a lot more earning power.

And driving lets the Proffitts make that sort of money while fulfilling other dreams, from visiting the grand-kids in Kansas to seeing the country.

Older drivers, particularly husband-and-wife teams, often deal better with some of the hardships of the job, said the American Trucking Associations' Reller: If the kids have left home and your spouse is riding along with you, there's not the same push to get home as often.

"Some people retire and drive an RV around to see the country," Reller said. "Some people are getting CDLs and driving trucks."

And mature drivers can also benefit the industry by bringing with them a sense of, well, maturity.

"You're more aware of the infinite possibility of things going wrong," said Lee Priest, a 59-year-old driver who was dropping off a load of paper in Jacksonville. "I'm a better driver than I ever was."

Area faces growing pains

Locally, the need for drivers is expected to grow even more acute next year, when Japanese shipping company Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. opens a terminal here, creating the first major direct connection for containerized cargo coming from Asia.

"The local demand is just really phenomenal now," said Rich Rozanski, a professor at Florida Community College at Jacksonville who is in the midst of starting a driving school there.

With the number of containers coming into the Port of Jacksonville expected to go up some 150 percent once Mitsui ramps up, he said, "The amount of trucks that will service the port will go up astronomically.

"The need there will be incredible," he said. "I anticipate 100 percent placement. I've had several companies tell me they want to be the first to come in and interview our students."

FCCJ is finishing up the facility for the school, which will begin classes Aug. 28. For the rest of 2007, a new 12-student cohort will begin every eight weeks, ramping up to new classes starting once a month in 2008.

The Jacksonville campus of Roadmaster Drivers Schools, a national company, has seen similar interest, said manager Ed Mocek, ranging from traditional students - particularly those looking for a job now that the construction boom in Florida has cooled off - to an increased number of women and older drivers.

Coming to driving after having had other jobs, said Craig Bivins, one of the students at Roadmasters, helps you better appreciate the job, and the money it brings. At 42, Bivins is learning to drive after leaving a career as a corrections officer, and says the entrepreneurial nature of the job appeals to him. "I could only make so much before," he said. "Here, the sky's the limit."

Being a bit more settled also helps with doing the job, he said. "You have a little life experience," Bivins said. "You don't come in with an immature attitude."

Job is not for everyone

Of course, driving is a job, and like any job, has its downsides. From the requirement to spend days and weeks away from home to the need to work long days to the stress of dealing with idiot drivers and frazzled dispatchers, trucking isn't for everyone.

"You're not just heading down the road," Priest said. "You see it all: Every sign, every road condition warning, other cars; you watch out for everything. You are constantly paying attention to the job."

And "constantly" means exactly that. Federal law allows drivers to work 14-hour days, during which they can drive for up to 11 hours. (Drivers can put in on-duty hours only in eight consecutive days, though, so time management becomes a critical part of the job.)

Priest knows well that not everyone is cut out for trucking: When he started driving 10 years ago, his first long-haul trip was with another newbie driver, who hopped out of the rig at a Newark truck stop and vanished, saying the job wasn't for him. "I kept on going by myself," Priest said. "I had no choice."

It's not unusual for a class at the Roadmaster school to start out with 30 people and dwindle down to 25, 20 - sometimes even down to eight - students, said instructor Syntha Turbeville. "Some people it just clicks for," she said. "Some people are born to drive."

The actual physical part of the job has gotten easier than it was a decade or so ago, though. Trucks have power steering, air-ride suspension and climate-control systems. Newer trucks are even coming equipped with automatic shifting systems, doing away with one of the harder physical tasks of driving.

The reward, say many truckers, is foremost the money, with job security coming in a close second. "The Internet can do a lot of things," said Schneider's Norder, "but it will never deliver a load of diapers to a grocery store."

Those who love the job say they can't imagine doing anything else with their lives, if for no other reason than the scenery.

"The sunsets, the sunrises - out west, they're just breathtaking," said Laurel Proffitt, who often starts driving at 5 a.m.

"The only problem," chimed in her husband, "is there's no place to pull the truck off the road to take pictures."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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