The U.S. trucking industry needs to put the pedal to the metal on recruiting if it wants to avert an acute shortage of drivers within 10...

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ST. LOUIS — The U.S. trucking industry needs to put the pedal to the metal on recruiting if it wants to avert an acute shortage of drivers within 10 years, says a recent study. The shortage of drivers comes as the trucking industry hauls more freight than ever, a figure that’s expected to rise to 13 billion tons by 2016 from nearly 10 billion tons in 2004.

Drivers have retired or sought new careers as average pay has slipped below other blue-collar jobs, according to a study for the American Trucking Associations, or ATA.

The current shortage of 20,000 long-haul drivers could increase to 111,000 by 2014. The ATA study said the future of the long-haul truck-driver pool appears bleak if demographic trends stay their course and the overall labor force continues to grow at a slower pace.

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Trucking companies have become so frustrated with rivals poaching their drivers that they have threatened to take them to court to protect their investment, said Legg Mason transportation analyst John Larkin.

“At the end of the day, truck driving is not a highly coveted career choice,” Larkin said in a March research report. “Our view is that last year’s pay increases, rather than attracting many new drivers to the industry, simply have enabled leading carriers to poach other carriers’ best drivers — hence the historically high turnover levels the industry witnessed in 2004.”

“The market (for drivers) is the tightest it has been in 20 years,” said Bill Graves, ATA president and chief executive. “It’s a major limitation to the amount of freight that motor carriers can haul.”

Of the 3.4 million truckers on the road, 1.3 million are long-haul, the segment most affected by the shortage, according to the study, by Global Insight.

ATA said drivers fled the industry in 2000 when average weekly earnings tumbled 9 percent below construction pay. Driver wages have yet to regain pre-2000 levels, when they were 6 to 7 percent more than those of construction workers.

Average annual pay for a truck driver was $37,388 in 1999, Global Insight said.

Drivers tired of extended periods away from home moved on to other careers, the study said. Meanwhile, demographics are working against the industry, because 20 percent of all heavy-duty truck drivers are 55 or older. Replacements must be found quickly, because only a small percentage of that group works past age 65, the study said.

“More importantly, the number of men aged 35 to 54, which make up the primary driver demographic, will be flat or declining over the next 10 years,” ATA said.

The industry can increase the driver pool, but it will have to reverse several trends. It must attract more women and minority drivers; raise wages, and improve a driver’s quality of life with more home time and flexible hours.

“It’s a favorable supply-demand market for us,” Graves said of the trucking industry. “But the ability to add truck capacity is based on the market’s ability to find drivers. A tight driver market will keep capacity tight.”