Sunday October 14, 2018

Wanted: Massive shortage of truck drivers worsens

National Tractor Trailer School in Liverpool taking action
By Lou Sorendo

    William Mocarski

    The United States — including the Central New York region — has a massive shortage of truck drivers, according to the American Trucking Association.

    The driver shortage is leading to delayed deliveries and higher prices for goods that Americans buy. The ATA predicts that it’s likely to get worse in the coming years. Regardless, National Tractor Trailer School on Buckley Road in Liverpool is pulling out all the stops to recruit drivers to fill the void.

    For William Mocarski, co-founder and president of NTTS, the actual trucker shortage began about 20 to 25 years ago following deregulation of the industry.

    “All of these trucking companies really felt they could deliver freight quicker than anyone else,” he said. “A lot of them were developed in the late 1970s and ‘80s, and all of a sudden by the early ‘90s, they really needed more drivers.”

    Some of the largest carriers in the country, including J.B. Hunt, Swift Transportation and Knight Transportation, needed more drivers. “That shortage has always been there. As we move forward to today, the shortage is still there because baby boomers are retiring, but that’s only a small portion of it,” he said.

    Mocarski said companies like Amazon increasingly need to move more products, and the only way to do that is through trucks. Amazon’s largest competitor, Walmart, is also facing the same circumstance when it comes to drivers.

    About 50,000 drivers are needed to meet the demand from companies such as Amazon and Walmart that are shipping more goods across the country, according to the ATA.

    “It’s a great industry and career, but you still have that old negative stereotype image of a truck driver,” Mocarski said. According to, some of those stereotypes include viewing drivers as rugged free-wheelers who are known to be “bad guys.”

    “Today, you can get in that truck with business clothes on,” Mocarski said. “The truck probably has better seats and navigation equipment than most cars. It is a very comfortable truck, and nothing like Harry [co-founder Harry Kowalchyk Jr.] and I started with in 1971, that is for sure.”

    Mocarski said it is a “great industry with great benefits, whether one wants to drive locally and be home every night, regionally and be gone several nights, or several weeks.

    “It’s their choice. Companies have a large menu of types of driving to fit anyone’s needs.”

    Those who inquire at the Buckley Road facility can speak with truck company representatives to get a feel for what income and benefits are. "It’s not just about the driving, but about that whole lifestyle change,” he said.

    The Professional Truck Drivers Institute certifies NTTS courses. The PTDI is considered the gold standard in training.

    Mocarski said companies are “bending over backwards” for drivers “almost too much.”

    “We have made it a little too easy because all of these companies come in and hire right out of class,” he said. “You don’t have to knock on doors.

    “Years ago, that’s what we all did. We got our commercial driver’s license and knocked on doors to ask if anyone was hiring. Today, it’s all online.”

    Also, companies offer what is termed a “pre-hire” wherein they will hire a student before he or she even comes to school. That way, a graduate knows upon getting his or her CDL what company they are going to be working for.

    Mocarski said the experience at NTTS enables drivers to navigate sophisticated equipment and prepare for a permanent career. NTTS can also provide a Class B CDL that enables holders to drive straight and box trucks, large buses and dump trucks.

    NTTS trains about 1,000 drivers annually at its three locations — Liverpool, Buffalo and Fort Drum. It also provides housing for those who prefer to stay close to training headquarters.

    Recruitment effort: Hal Williams is the transportation manager at Dot Foods in Liverpool, a company that has existed since 1960.

    Williams does presentations and recruits new drivers, as do many other companies that visit NTTS.

    He got his Class A CDL last year through a driver training at Dot Foods, but has been managing truckers for nearly 23 years. He started in warehousing at the Walmart Distribution Center in Marcy. A clerk’s position in the transportation department opened, and he jumped on it and worked there for 11 years.

    An opportunity then arose at Dot Foods to be director of transportation, and Williams has been there for the past 12 years.

    The recruiter noted he enjoys bringing on new drivers and watching them succeed. “You see their new cars and homes that they purchase, and their ability to take care of their family. A lot of these people came from dead-end jobs or were getting laid off every couple months, so it’s good to see the success stories,” he said.

    Williams said trucking today is a very professional job. “You can’t just jump in a 80,000-pound rig and drive like a mad man. You’ve got to be safety conscious.”

    He said regulations are much stiffer and there are more rules to follow. “What’s different in terms of reputation is you are not on the road for weeks and months at a time as a driver living at truck stops.”

    “There are so many opportunities — at Dot Foods and other companies — where you can be home every day or in regional-type positions,” Williams said. “You are driving nice, safe equipment and trucks are automatic, meaning you don’t have to shift them.”

    Trucks with automatic transmissions are deemed safer and get better gas mileage.

    He said the whole stigma of the “dumb truck driver who can’t get anything more out of life” has diminished. “There is just so much to learn and it’s such a regulated industry. You have to be on top of your game,” he said.

    Drivers are restricted in terms of consecutive hours they can spend driving. "There’s always been regulations in place,” said Williams, noting some changes have involved capping maximum driving hours at 11 while mandating a 10-hour instead of eight-hour break.

    Thirty-minute breaks after a certain amount of work time are also mandated. Also, drivers are required to keep electronic logging devices versus paper versions, which in the past could be “fudged” to keep drivers on the road longer, Williams said.

    He noted many employers in the past wanted to do whatever they could to make money, putting drivers in the position of being obligated to work even harder.

    Williams said with the mandated 10-hour rest time, it helps drivers do their job safer.

    Addressing the shortage: Williams said the industry would like to see younger drivers come into trucking, and noted the people applying now are in their 30s and 40s and are looking for second and third careers.

    “They are deciding, ‘Hey, there are no layoffs out there in the trucking industry and it pays well. I’m going to jump on it,’” he said.

    Meanwhile, the DRIVE-Safe Act is before Congress and if approved, will allow 18- to 20-year-olds to attain their Class A CDL. Currently, one must be 21 in order to do interstate driving.

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of a commercial truck driver in the U.S. is 55 years old. “That’s probably going to be one of the biggest changes to gain more drivers in the industry,” Williams said.

    Women make up 47 percent of the nation’s workforce but only account for 6 percent of commercial truck drivers.

    In terms of recruiting more women, Williams said “it’s all about change in that stigma that views drivers being on the road for days and weeks on end with no family life. That’s untrue. There are all sorts of driving types that they might not know of,” said Williams, noting Dot Foods has a position called “4 on 4 off” where drivers work four days and then get four days off.

    “You can basically work half the year and can make $50,000 to $60,000 starting on that position,” he said. “For men and women, it’s a good opportunity to see lots of home time and make a decent living as well.”

    Williams said Dot Foods has a regional driving position open that guarantees $65,000 fresh out of school. “It’s more and more competitive with trucking companies,” Williams said. “We are all fighting for a smaller pool of drivers. There’s more truck driving jobs than drivers.”

    Another key, he said, is getting people to understand that tractor-trailers nowadays are “beautiful pieces of equipment.”

    “Our trucks are all automatics, and have power inverters, double bunks and blue tooth systems. It’s like sleeping in an RV,” Williams said.

    Williams said in a few years, he is going to retire and opt to drive part-time at his convenience. “When I get behind the wheel and out on the road, there is a satisfaction of providing a service by delivering a product that someone needs, whether it be food products, chemicals or cleaning supplies. There is a satisfaction every single day. Everything we use in the world today is brought by truck,” he said.

    Prepping next wave of drivers: Robert Lingyak, 59, has been with Gypsum Express in Baldwinsville for 17 years.

    Gypsum Express features 13 terminals and more than 600 tractor-trailers.

    The Camillus resident is a 1983 graduate of NTTS. “I have never been unemployed a day in my life,” Lingyak said.

    He said it is critical for the industry to attract younger people into the trucking fold. One avenue toward that goal is through wages.

    He said it is not uncommon to see drivers earn $1,500 or even $1,800 gross a week, which translates to about $75,000 and $90,000 annually, respectively.

    “Where else are you going to get that without having a master’s degree or doctorate?” he asked.

    Lingyak noted the younger generation just lacks a strong work ethic today. “They say, ‘I got to be home with mommy or my girlfriend.’ When I got my license at 21, I couldn’t wait to get out of the house. I grew up in a hurry too,” he said.

    Lingyak can take a driver from learning how to drive a box trailer to a flat bed hauling 30,000-pound aluminum coils to driving a tandem trailer — two 48-foot trailers — down the Thruway.

    “It’s the future of America,” Lingyak said. “Who do you think gets gas to the gas station? You think there is a pipeline running there? A trucking company took it there.”

    Lingyak said in terms of drawing more females into the industry, establishing paid parking at truck stops would enhance safety. With a paid system, a female trucker on the road could call a truck stop using an app on her phone to reserve a spot.

    He said bigger cities pose danger, such as Hunts Point in the South Bronx in New York City, which is home to one of the largest food distribution facilities in the world.

    “However, you don’t have to be a gorilla or tough guy. It’s an air-conditioned office with a view,” he said.

    However, it’s still challenging when a driver is hauling the maximum total load of 80,000 pounds at 65 miles per hour. “It takes a football field to stop it,” he said.

    He said John Wight, president and owner at Gypsum Express, once advised him not to mislead anyone. “One of the first things I ask is what family life is like,” Lingyak said. He said it is vital to strike a work-life balance to make it work for drivers.

    It’s important to know if the prospect has not only a clean background, but also if he or she had ever held a job with long work hours.

    It is common in the trucking industry to work 60-to-70 hours a week.