Truck-driver shortage? Columbus driving school expands
Roadmaster Drivers School has relocated and expanded its Columbus location to help address what it sees as a shortage of drivers.
The school, based in St. Petersburg, Florida, hopes to accommodate 750 students a year in its 10,000-square-foot digs on Frank Road in Columbus. Its pitch: The rapid expansion of digital commerce means shipping companies need more truckers.
"Overall, I think it is fair to say that if you're someone looking for a job in trucking, with a clean driving record, there are fleets looking to hire," said Bob Costello, chief economist for American Trucking Associations.
But experts and industry insiders disagree on whether there is a shortage.
The country was short 60,000 drivers at the end of last year, according to American Trucking Associations. That shortfall stems largely from high turnover at large trucking companies, the experts say. The association reported a 94% annual turnover rate at large companies in 2018.
High turnover is a self-inflicted wound, said Steve Viscelli, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor and author of "The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream." Deregulation and receding union clout in the 1980s led to longer and less predictable routes and lower pay that persist in 2020, he said.
Before the 1980s, truckers typically drove a regular route between two cities, Viscelli said.
"Now it's, 'When I get to Milwaukee, I'll pick up a load that goes to Alabama and then head to Kentucky,' " he said.
The workforce is aging, and when younger drivers realize what the job entails, many quit, said David Owen, president of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies.
"Their job is hard," he said. "You have to run 3,000-plus miles a week, and you're not paid very well, and there are so many things you can't control, like traffic and weather."
Talk of a shortage of drivers is "a marketing strategy," Viscelli said. He cited a 2018 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study that found no evidence of a shortage despite frequent headlines declaring an intense demand for drivers.
Trucking is a durable profession. Store shelves must be stocked and packages must be delivered, and shipping via big rig trucks is much more flexible than other modes of transportation, said Paul Hong, a distinguished professor of supply-chain management at the University of Toledo.
Trains, for example, can travel only on tracks, he said.
"No matter how technology develops, there must be sufficient flows of goods and services," he said.
Roadmaster promises students steady pay, which appealed to Sir Michael Glass, a lifelong Columbus resident who attends the school in Columbus.
"If I'm going to go for a job, I might as well go for one that pays well," he said.
Glass said he is aware of the long hours and distances, but that hasn't dissuaded him.
Most drivers are unlikely to see high initial pay, Viscelli said.
"A lot of people come in thinking they're going to make $60,000 a year," he said. "That is possible for more experienced and productive drivers, but that requires living out of a truck and not seeing your family."
Drivers often are paid by the mile, and less-experienced drivers with few routes are likely to average closer to $30,000 a year, he said.
Roadmaster president Brad Ball pointed to a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics study that found that drivers make around $45,000 in their first year. A driver's total pay varies depending on the employer, the type of routes and other factors, he said.
Even for those who are paid well, the hours are grueling, Viscelli said.
"For workers who are out there working in an average-paying job, (a trucker's salary) may sound attractive, until you realize these guys are working the equivalent of two to three full-time jobs," he said.
Roadmaster charges students just under $7,000 for its course. Ball said about half of students finance their tuition and the other half receive aid through grants and government programs aimed at providing jobs to veterans or the chronically unemployed.
Some trucking companies pay students' tuition and then deduct money from their pay after they begin work. Grants and loans help prospective drivers who couldn't otherwise afford the schooling, Ball said.
"We wouldn't be in the business of training unemployed and underemployed people if we didn't have programs to help people who have bumps and bruises in their credit," he said.
Viscelli called that system predatory. Companies often agree to waive any remaining fees after a former student drives for at least a year as a way to rope them into staying on the job, he said.
Roadmaster is not without controversy.
A New Mexico family sued the school in 2017 after a relative was killed in a crash with a Roadmaster-trained driver. Last year, Werner Enterprises, the school's parent company, was ordered to pay the family more than $40 million.
Ball said he could not comment on the suit.