California driver shortage could make trucking school the most lucrative career change
Roberto Aguirre already had a job lined up when he finished truck driving school this spring, but that didn’t stop more offers from coming in almost every day.
“Do you need a job? How soon can you start?” Aguirre said he was routinely asked by recruiters calling from trucking companies. He even got offered a job while he was attending a baptism.
Aguirre graduated in the midst of a growing truck driver shortage that has left carriers scrambling to offer pay increases, bonuses and tuition reimbursement for new drivers. The shortage is even affecting operations at the Port of Oakland and Central Valley farms, raising concerns about shipping delays, wasted crops and higher prices for consumers.
“It’s extremely concerning,” said Eric Sauer, vice president of government affairs at the California Trucking Association.
Farmers in Southern California, where harvest season starts earlier in the year, are already contending with a 30 percent drop in drivers compared to previous years, Sauer said. He worries there could be half as many drivers as normal by the time harvest season moves into the Central Valley in June.
In Oakland, carrier companies that provide trucking services at the port are struggling to find and train potential drivers to meet demand.
“It’s becoming quite an issue, actually,” said Dominic Chiovare, president of Teamsters Local 70 in Oakland. “They’re just having trouble providing the level of service to their customers they would like to.”
The causes of the shortage, which has been building for more than a decade, are myriad, industry experts said, starting with a workforce of commercial drivers with an average age of 55, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The industry for years has struggled to attract younger workers who aren’t as interested in trucking, in part because you have to be 21 to get a commercial license so it’s not a viable option for anyone looking for a job straight out of high school.
During the pandemic, some workers decided to retire. Some who are eligible for unemployment or stimulus financial assistance have declined to come back while they have those benefits, Sauer said, although unemployment pay in California maxes out at about half the $1,500 a week Aguirre said he’s making as a driver right out of trucking school.
“Companies are starting to pay more,” Chiovare said. “The ones that don’t pay as good are really struggling to get anybody to work for them.”
The supply of new drivers was also crushed by the pandemic, which forced some trucking schools to close or limit attendance for social distancing, said Brad Ball, president of Roadmasters Driving School. His company has 15 trucking schools nationally, with five more opening by the end of the year. Students typically have multiple job offers within the first week of a four-week program, he said.
“I don’t know of any other opportunity, with any other form of education like college, community college … that you can go to school for such a short period of time and come out (with a job) literally four weeks after you start,” he said.
Tuition is just under $7,000, but companies often will pay back student loans for drivers as an extra employment enticement, according to Ball.
The growing demand for drivers has made trucking a more diverse industry. The image of a Smokey the Bandit-style White, male truck driver, “that’s not what you see nowadays,” said Ball.
Among drivers 55 and older, just 5 percent are women and 12 percent are Latino, according to the Census Bureau. But among drivers under 35, 9 percent are women and 26 percent are Latino.
When Aguirre was attending a Roadmaster school in Fontana in March, demand for drivers was so high that one company got the school to offer weekend classes so some students could graduate a few days early. Aguirre, a recent Army veteran, wanted to be able to stay close to his wife and kids so he got a job with the carrier Werner Enterprises driving mostly short-haul routes from a distribution center in Stockton, where he lives, to Dollar General stores throughout the Bay Area.
Veteran’s benefits covered his tuition, he said, and he got a $3,000 bonus just for living in Stockton where multiple distribution centers are based. He was encouraged to become a driver by his trucker father-in-law, he said, and now his two younger brothers are looking to get into the industry.
After all, the career potential is good right now. One friend who graduated from driving school a year before Aguirre already owns four trucks and hires his own drivers. Another got a raise by switching to a new trucking company.
“Right now it’s a good time to be a truck driver,” he said.