CORY TURNER, HOST:
If it's like most presidential elections, this year's vote will ultimately turn on the economy. The U.S. economy is growing unevenly, to say the least. This next story is about economic growing pains. The trucking industry is doing well but is critically short of drivers. Here's Frank Morris of member station KCUR.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: One of the fastest growing parts of the trucking industry these days is driver training.
Schools like Apex CDL Institute in Kansas City, Kan., here are cranking out drivers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Rev it higher, rev it higher, higher. There you go. Now get back on the brakes, clutch out.
WAYNE BERRY: I retired from the Army in 2013, worked four jobs since then. And nothing's really captured my interest as much as this has.
MORRIS: Wayne Berry, on his second day training behind the wheel of a big rig, says an Army buddy told him about trucking.
BERRY: And then I got in touch with them, and they were like yeah, we'll take you. So I have a pre-hire letter from this company.
MORRIS: They committed to hire you before you knew how to drive a truck?
BERRY: Yes, yeah.
JEFF STEINBERG: Anybody will hire him.
MORRIS: Jeff Steinberg runs this school.
STEINBERG: I would have recruiters get in knife fights for him out in the parking lot to try to get him to come to work for them.
MORRIS: The American Trucking Association says the industry is down 48,000 drivers. Noel Perry, a trucking industry analyst, says it's way more.
NOEL PERRY: Well, my driver shortage number now is 100,000, but it's a relative number.
MORRIS: For one thing, more than 3 million long-haul truckers work American highways. Perry says the current driver shortage isn't big enough to disrupt shipping all that much, but it is dampening growth. And companies are responding.
DEREK LEATHERS: In the last couple weeks, we've announced two of the largest pay raises in our company's history.
MORRIS: Derek Leathers, president of Warner Enterprises, one of the biggest trucking companies, says they boosted pay by 5,000 a year for some drivers, 10,000 for others.
LEATHERS: We want 2016 to be the year of the driver for us.
MORRIS: It's not just pay increases and signing bonuses. Trucking companies say they're working to get their drivers home more regularly and to cut aggravation on the job. But Todd Spencer with the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association says trucking companies have a long way to go.
TODD SPENCER: Companies go through drivers like oats go through a horse. I mean, drivers are considered very much a disposable commodity.
MORRIS: Spencer says just look at the turnover rate. It can vary wildly by company, but average is a whopping 100 percent.
SPENCER: One-hundred percent turnover means you had two people for every position. You just couldn't keep them. That's not a shortage.
MORRIS: Now, lots of truckers are retiring. That accounts for some of the turnover. And Bob Costello with the American Trucking Associations, argues that a lot of the churn is a good thing for drivers, who are following promises of better working conditions or pay and jumping from job to job.
BOB COSTELLO: If you have a good driving record, you could leave a carrier today and have a job this afternoon.
MORRIS: But many new truck drivers don't last their first year. The job's too hard on their families, they make mistakes, they don't earn as much as expected.
BRODERICK VINSON: A shortage? (Laughter) I don't think there's no shortage in truck driving.
MORRIS: Broderick Vinson, filling up at a Petro truck stop in Oak Grove, Mo., noted that most drivers get paid by the mile, not the hour. That means delays - at loading docks, in traffic, whatever - cuts straight into their earnings. Last year, median annual pay for drivers came in just under $40,000. Long-haul truckers tend to make more, but they're out on the road up to 14 hours a day, up to 80 hours a week, sometimes or weeks on end - working, sleeping and eating truck-stop food in a truck. Veterans like Gus Wagner say it's a tough lifestyle.
GUS WAGNER: You're asking a question about why there's a driver shortage, and what it is is there's a pay shortage because, you know, why do you want to leave your house, leave your family, leave your kids when you could make as much, you know, at a local job? It just doesn't make any sense.
MORRIS: As trucking companies work to rebalance the relationship with their drivers, they face new safety regulations in the next couple of years that will likely slow trucks down and cut the number of hours drivers can work, which means trucking companies will need to hire still more of them. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.