If it seems like there are more trucks on the road these days, there are. Tavio Headley, an economist with the American Trucking Associations, says freight traffic has climbed steadily since late last year.
Moving America's Freight
This chart shows the total tonnage transported by the trucking industry. (Seasonally adjusted; 2000 = 100)
This April was almost 10 percent better than a year earlier, Headley says. The broad gauge the ATA uses to monitor the trucking industry has climbed back to where it was just before the recession.
"So that's very positive news," Headley says.
And at the Truckers Jubilee, a part-barn dance, part-job fair at a truck stop in Oak Grove, Mo., job seekers definitely had the upper hand.
Sundy Muse-Morton with O&S Trucking was at the event, trying to entice would-be employees. "We're having to turn down freight because we don't have enough drivers," Muse-Morton said. "I mean, for all the freight shortage last year, it's coming back now stronger than ever, and we literally can't keep up."
Mark Welch, with a company called Landstar, was also at the Truckers Jubilee looking for potential drivers. Landstar employs drivers who have their own trucks, so-called owner-operators. "Capacity right now is tight to say the least, and we're anticipating it getting worse because a lot of owner-operators just left the industry in the last couple of years," Welch said.
Some 1,700 small trucking companies folded just last year. That sent thousands of drivers out of the business, and that wave of failures has swelled even as the freight markets improved.
Banks are now more likely to foreclose on truck loans gone bad because used semis are back in demand. In the first quarter of this year, 730 companies went under. It could easily have been 731.
"In January I thought I was going to quit. I was going to go ahead and file bankruptcy and be done with it," says Robert Manley, who got his banker in Marshal, Mo., to give him a break even though he'd fallen behind on the payments on his old truck
With a strong increase in freight traffic early this spring, though, Manley was able to march into his bank and settle up.
"I went in person and handed them the money," Manley said. " 'Sign the title over to me!' Took the title and went into the bank vault and put it right there."
You don't get rich trucking. Many drivers make less than $40,000 a year, some less than $30,000 for their long hours and weeks away from home. And, as truckers say, if the wheels don't roll, they don't get paid. For now, Manley and others like him are grateful they're rolling often enough and long enough, to cover the bills.