STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Most of the stuff around us right now - I don't know - the television screens and microphones in the studio, products in your house, parts of every car, parts of almost every building, were once transported by truck. And the system that moves all that freight has a fundamental problem. There are not enough drivers. Trucking companies say an acute shortage is causing delays and driving up consumer prices. Frank Morris of our member station KCUR has the first of two stories.
UNIDENTIFIED INSTRUCTOR: John, we just need you to back this truck up in a straight line. And remember...
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: On a parking lot in Springfield, Mo., marked with orange traffic cones, John Bounds is changing career lanes, learning to drive a semi truck. A mouse click at home in Georgia landed Bounds behind the wheel of this big rig.
JOHN BOUNDS: I clicked on Wil-Tran (ph). And it wasn't a couple days later they called me back, got in touch with me, you know, made it really easy for me to choose this company.
MORRIS: Wil-Trans courted Bounds, 43-year-old meat cutter with zero trucking experience, like a star athlete for a job that starts above $40,000 a year because as fellow students like Jessy Dager, 21-year-old in Philadelphia, know, this industry is desperate for drivers.
JESSY DAGER: I like this company a lot, so I'm not going to say I'm not going to be here. But if I wanted to go somewhere else, there's a plethora of places I could go and get a job almost anywhere in the country.
MORRIS: The trucking industry's been short of drivers for decades, but the problem keeps getting worse. A big run-up in shipping demand, baby boomer retirements and a staggering turnover rate have left trucking companies unable to fill some 60,000 jobs. T.J. O'Connor, president of YRC Freight, says that's forcing them to turn down lucrative business.
TJ O'CONNOR: Well, I think as an industry, we need to be more creative and resourceful to attract and retain top-notch people that are very safety-focused, that have an interest and understand what they're getting into.
MORRIS: Of course, money is part of the solution. Some companies are offering signing bonuses, referral bonuses, longevity bonuses, paid time off, retirement plans and health care. Last year, average trucker income spiked to around $60,000.
LORI FURNELL: Pay has gone up tremendously. And in some cases, you know, you're talking 10, 11 percent.
MORRIS: Lori Furnell is director of talent acquisition for Walmart's huge trucking fleet. They've got 900 openings.
FURNELL: Our first-year drivers with Walmart will average about 87.5 this year.
MORRIS: Eighty-seven thousand, five hundred dollars with good benefits. And like some other trucking firms, Walmart's also offering drivers nearly free online college tuition. But Walmart only hires experienced drivers with sterling safety records. Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, says average driver income slumped for decades before last year's boost.
TODD SPENCER: The only real shortage is - it's a pay shortage (laughter), so that's the shortage. Even the crappiest job will attract workers and keep them if they pay enough.
MORRIS: Most long-haul truckers don't get a salary or even an hourly wage. They get paid by the mile. It's been that way since the 1930s, partly as an incentive for drivers hauling unrefrigerated food to move it as fast as possible. Drivers liked it. They made more that way. Now the government enforces strict limits on the amount of time drivers can spend behind the wheel. Many face long delays in traffic and hold-ups loading and unloading that can eat up much of their driving time, all without pay.
SPENCER: You put in a whole lot of hours for the money you get.
MORRIS: The driver shortage in tight freight markets are making it more expensive for shippers to waste drivers' time. Companies are trying to structure routes to give drivers more predictable pay and schedules. But all that isn't enough to fix the driver shortage. And companies are working hard to broaden the appeal of trucking. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.
(SOUNDBITE OF ...OF SINKING SHIPS' "IT NEVER MATTERED TO YOU")
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.