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These job-seekers are in the driver’s seat


Chiron Platnum won’t graduate from CDS Tractor Trailer Training in Woodford until next week, but he’s already gotten two job offers.

The former landscaper and bus driver doesn’t plan to decide which one to take until he finishes the four-week course.

Platnum, who lives in Fredericksburg, can afford to be choosy as he transitions into a year-round career that doesn’t involve dealing with dozens of passengers—and typically offers a starting pay of around $40,000.

Tractor-trailer drivers are in high demand, according to the American Trucking Association, the industry’s largest national trade association. Currently there’s a nationwide shortage of between 20,000 and 25,000 drivers, which could grow to 239,000 drivers over the next decade.

Jill Balleh, president of CDS Tractor Trailer Training, said that demand for graduates has been steady for years. Those who want to become long-distance haulers usually get placed before they finish, and some companies will even help pay the $5,000 tuition for those studying for a Class A commercial driver’s license.

“Our phones are ringing off the hook in the spring and summer and fall,” she said. “Year-round, there are always jobs.”

ATA spokesman Sean McNally cited a number of reasons for the driver shortage, including a slowly improving economy and the resulting increase in demand for consumer goods. The majority are transported by tractor-trailer, and 80 percent of communities in the United States are served exclusively by truck drivers.

“[The shortage] could mean that when you go to the store to purchase milk or a Blu-ray player or TV, it may not be in stock because the company didn’t have a driver to deliver it,” McNally said. “It adds to the cost of the supply chain because carriers are doing more in terms of increasing driver pay. The real impact is that the goods you want may not be in the store, and when they are they may cost more.”

Other factors helping to create the shortfall include fewer young people entering the field just as more experienced drivers are reaching retirement age. Danny Payne, owner of Payne Trucking in Massaponax, said 20-somethings these days would rather work at a computer than behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer.

Not only that, but they can’t apply for the Class A commercial driver’s license they’d need until they’re 21, and then they usually have to have two years of experience before a company will hire them. Who wants to wait until they’re 23 to start a career? he said.

Those who do go into trucking face stricter requirements because of the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, which the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration launched in 2010. At its heart is the Safety Measurement System, which collects safety data from inspections and crash reports, then weighs the severity of violations.

“Because the scores are made public, carriers are doing what they can to improve their scores relative to their peers and recruit and bring in only the safest and lowest-risk drivers,” McNally said.

Payne, for example, hired a full-time trainer six months ago to work with new employees to make sure they know how to operate his fleet of dump trucks. Commonwealth Carrier Corporation, which is in Spotsylvania County, gives new drivers a regular, local route at first to get them trained.

Stafford County-based Hilldrup Moving and Storage has a 16- to 18-month training program for prospective candidates that includes such things as how to pack and move furnishings as well as drive.

“You really have to learn this business. Driving is just a piece of it,” said Randy Rantz, senior vice president of operations.

More regulations affecting the trucking industry could be just down the road. The federal government also has proposed changing the rules for truckers’ hours of operation beginning in July. Among other things, it would require drivers to take a 34-hour rest that must include two rest breaks, each from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., before starting a new workweek.

That would result in drivers taking a 40- to 48-hour break instead of a 34-hour break, hinder their flexibility to manage their schedules and increase the number of truckers that carriers would need to hire to compensate, McNally said.

The ATA filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last year that asks the court to block implementation of the hours rule. The case will be heard in March.

“We’ve challenged the rule because we believe there’s no scientific basis for the change and that it will have a harmful impact,” said McNally, who added that some groups don’t think the rules are strict enough.

These days, many of the people entering the truck driving field are veterans taking advantage of the “Troops to Trucks” program, a joint effort of the federal government and the Virginia Department of Transportation, or career switchers like Platnum, the former landscaper and bus driver.

His fellow students at CDS Tractor Trailer Training include Nicholas Baker, a self-employed bricklayer who saw demand for his skills decline along with the housing boom, and Ed Bailey of Calvert County, Md., a software engineer whose contract ended in December.

They’re looking for a steady job that can’t be outsourced and could provide a gateway into a business of their own, said Balleh.

“It’s like flipping a light switch,” the CDS president said. “Today you’re unemployed and have lots of bills. If you want to be in a different place, trucking can do that for you.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407