Demand for truck drivers soars in Western Pennsylvania


by Jacob Tierney, Pittsburgh Tribune Review

semi-truckTravis Von Seggern’s phone rings almost every day with job offers.

With a newly minted commercial driver’s license, Von Seggern of Greensburg is in total control of his job search because of the severe shortage of those holding the coveted licenses needed to operate the largest vehicles on the highway, including tractor trailers, tow trucks and buses.

“There’s so many job opportunities out there, and you can pretty much do what you want to do,” said the Iraqi war veteran, who received his license on Friday.

There is a shortage of about 23,000 licensed operators nationwide, and if the shortfall continues to grow, the gap could be 10 times larger by 2023, according to the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association.

In Western Pennsylvania, the shortage is even worse because the rapidly growing Marcellus shale drilling industry has driven up demand.

But the shortage can’t be attributed to a decrease in the overall number of drivers with commercial licenses.

In the last 10 years, that number has increased about 7.8 percent, according to state records. There were 426,981 drivers with commercial licenses in Pennsylvania in 2013 compared with 394,909 in 2003, according to PennDOT.

Aside from demand, stricter regulations and drivers who would rather work locally than spend days at a time on the road have played a role in the shortage.

“It’s very tight for drivers. There just aren’t enough to go around,” said Jeff Cable, owner of Coordinators Inc. in Irwin. Cable employs about 90 drivers and said that, in recent years, it has been more difficult to find and keep good employees.

“The pay scale isn’t high enough for what is put upon them. Therefore, you don’t have that many people really wanting to get into it,” he said.

New truckers earn about $40,000 a year, while the median pay industrywide is about $50,000, according to data from American Trucking Association.

Many drivers discover they don’t like the long trips that keep them away from home for days or weeks at a time, Cable said. They are more likely to work for companies that deliver locally, so they can be home every night.

Cable said he has tried to compete by paying a good wage and supplying his drivers with modern equipment, but it is difficult to keep up.

For some companies, the problem has been building for years.

Ernest Adams of New Florence used to have 35 drivers working for him. Now it’s just him and his son, Ernest Jr.

“The lack of good drivers is what convinced me to scale down, quite honestly,” he said.

He dissolved his company about eight years ago.

Adams, 59, started driving trucks when he was 16. The only requirement at that time was an ordinary driver’s license.

New regulations have been implemented over the years to protect drivers and those who share the road with them.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation set the maximum work week for drivers at 70 hours, down from 82. The change meant companies needed to hire more drivers.

Adams still drives but said he is done trying to run a company.

“I’m at a point in my life where I just do it because I enjoy it,” he said.

In this region, the growth of the gas industry has been a game-changer.

“The gas industry is taking drivers from everyone,” said Joe Rapp, a CDL instructor at the Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in New Stanton.

The center began offering the training last year in partnership with the Lehigh Career and Technical Institute in Schnecksville and Sage Truck Driving Schools.

Jan Klevis, director of post-secondary and workforce education at Lehigh, has helped begin several such training programs, and the one in New Stanton has become the busiest the fastest, she said.

“(At) this one, we’ve seen the fastest ramp-up of students coming into the program,” she said.

“The gas industry needs so many drivers, so they’re taking them away from the traditional truck driving jobs, leaving voids in those as well.”

The program starts new classes every month. Drivers spend 150 hours in training, 44 of those behind the wheel, before taking the driving test. The school has certified 60 students since opening in September, including Von Seggern, who said he plans to find a job making local deliveries so he can be home every night.

“If you have your CDL and you don’t have a job, you are putting in zero effort,” he said. “I can’t get guys to stop calling me.”

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