WEST FARGO-A driver shortage has recruitment efforts in overdrive as area trucking companies seek to attract a younger generation to an industry that touches nearly every aspect of the American economy.
"Just look around, almost every item you see in a work space or other setting was on a truck at some point," said Melissa Dixon, president of the North Dakota Motor Carriers Association, a group that is keenly aware of how difficult it is for companies to find and keep qualified drivers.
Dixon said that whenever members of the association gather hiring is the most talked about item.
She said the problem has long existed nationwide, but the Fargo-Moorhead region is now feeling the pinch as well.
"We previously had the luxury of being able to take young folks off of the farm and bring them into the trucking workforce because they came with some experience," Dixon said.
But, with today's smaller farm families and career options that hold greater appeal for young people, trucking is being pursued by fewer and fewer people, according to Dixon.
Other challenges, say Dixon and others in the trucking industry, include a federal rule requiring truck drivers who cross state lines to be at least 21 years old and insurance companies that are becoming increasingly picky about who they will insure.
Many policies require drivers to be at least 23 and have at least two years of over-the-road experience, Dixon said.
"How do you get the experience when nobody can insure you? It's a Catch-22," Dixon said.
When it comes to trucking companies that want to grow, or even maintain their current operations, the driver shortage is a huge challenge, according to Mark Wolter, director of safety and maintenance at Midnite Express Inc. in West Fargo.
"It (the driver shortage) is probably the biggest hindrance we have right now," said Wolter, who added it is also difficult for trucking companies to fill other types of jobs, such as mechanic positions.
Wolter said the rigors of trucking can be a hindrance to some, as the job can take someone away from their family for seven to 10 days at a time.
In the past, Midnite Express offered signing bonuses of $1,000 in an effort to attract drivers, but that amount has been boosted to $1,500 as drivers have become even more scarce.
"I hear some of the bigger companies have a $5,000 sign-up bonus," Wolter said, adding the Fargo area's low unemployment rate and large number of trucking firms make finding drivers particularly difficult.
"We probably have better luck when we go outside of the Fargo-Moorhead area when looking for drivers," he said, adding that he considers the hiring pool to include 13 Upper Midwest states.
One Midnite Express driver, Geoff Atherton, lives in Rapid City, S.D.
Atherton said he worked for Midnite Express before doing a stint in the military, and he returned to the trucking company after completing his service. He said he returned to Midnite Express because he likes the company and the work he does.
G.L. Tucker, executive director of the Workforce Development Solutions Group at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Moorhead, said the school offers training to help people pass their driving exam to achieve a commercial driver's license.
The problem, he said, "is finding folks interested in taking the training."
He said one reason for that is the cost, which is about $2,000 for 15 hours of training.
Tucker said other reasons include the age minimums set for truck drivers by the government and insurance policies.
But those aren't the only challenges, according to Dixon.
"The job itself is taxing and there's a lot of road rage out there," she said.
"People, for whatever, have an unwarranted bad connotation toward trucks, so truck drivers aren't treated as respectfully as they should be," she said.
Dixon said truck driver pay is "all over the board," but she estimated an experienced driver can make upwards of $100,000 a year, while starting pay might be closer to $45,000 a year.
"It takes a special breed and a special desire to perform that kind of work, but those who love it are absolute road warriors and they're professional in their job and what they do. We're lucky to have every single one of them that we've got," Dixon said.
North Dakota trucking facts
• The state has 32,120 trucking jobs, or 1 in 11 jobs in the state
• North Dakota has 3,340 trucking companies, primarily small and locally owned
• Trucks represent 22 percent of vehicle miles traveled in the state but the industry paid 54 percent of all taxes owed by motorists
• About 46 percent of North Dakota communities depend exclusively on trucks to move their goods
Information provided by the North Dakota Motor Carriers Association