A gray area

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Recruitment of older workers raises questions about the future of an already aging driver pool.

Dayton, Ohio-based owner-operator Monty Rhoades is thinking about retiring five years down the road – “if my wife will let me,” he says. That’ll put the 37-year trucking industry veteran at 65 years young, and though that might seem like a normal time to let loose of the wheel, it’s not unusual these days for healthy drivers to stick around in the industry much longer than that. If you can still pass the DOT physical and a carrier will hire you, chances are you’re free to keep on trucking.

A May 2005 study on the driver shortage conducted by research firm Global Insight and commissioned by the American Trucking Associations showed nearly 3 percent of the total driver population in the year 2000 to be above the age of 65. By 2004, according to the study, that percentage had risen to 3.7, and a full fifth of over-the-road drivers were 55 or older.

The industry-wide average driver age continues to increase at a greater rate than that of the overall workforce. Over eight years beginning in 1994, according to the Global Insight study, it rose by 2.7 years to 43.2, while the average age of the entire labor force rose only by 1.7 years. The Global Insight study estimates that, without significant recruiting and market adjustments, the current 20,000-or-so-driver shortage could rise to 111,000 by 2014 as the older workers retire.

At D & D Sexton, Inc., a refrigerated carrier based in Carthage, Mo., with a fleet of 130 tractors and a couple hundred trailers, the average driver age hovers around 50-55 years, says safety specialist and recruiter Darenda Rohrbach. But D & D Sexton doesn’t have to focus recruiting efforts on older drivers, says Rohrbach, because “they come to us. Right now it just seems to be a fact of life: the workforce is aging.”

This partly reflects longstanding realities on the ground. People are living longer, and truck drivers on average have been a little older than the rest of the labor force for decades. But it’s also due in part to a shift in carriers’ recruiting strategies in response to the driver shortage, adding appealing to 50-plus-year-old potential drivers to the industry’s traditional recruitment M.O. of attracting lifelong drivers when they’re in their late 20s and early 30s after they’ve spent time in a host of unfulfilling jobs.

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ATA and the Truckload Carriers Association (among other organizations outside the trucking industry) recently partnered with the national retirement-age-worker advocacy organization AARP in the Alliance for an Experienced Workforce, a coalition designed to keep older workers in jobs. Promoting trucking as a second or third career for mature workers is at the forefront of their efforts within the alliance, now attracting older potential drivers from other professions where they may have hit the wall in terms of pay or satisfaction.

Driving the dream
Maybe you’ve seen some of the ads already. “‘Before you retire, are you going to be able to eat lobster in Maine?'” says Harry Kowalchyk, summarizing one. Kowalchyk, president of the National Tractor Trailer School in Liverpool, N.Y., (with another branch in Buffalo) routinely gets calls from aspiring truckers asking about the business. Recently a woman approaching retirement age phoned in. Her husband was thinking of buying an RV, and, shrewdly, she didn’t think it was a good investment. Kowalchyk tells it this way:

“She says, ‘You know, I’ve been reading some of these trucking magazines and watching some of the commercials. Is it true what they say?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. What do they say?'”

The caller asked about the feasibility of becoming a husband-wife owner-operator team – they’d see the country while making money and working for themselves. The problem was that neither husband nor wife had any prior over-the-road experience.

Kowalchyk gave her a realistic reply: “Well, I wouldn’t recommend it right out of school, because you don’t have the skill experience. You could find a company to drive for, get a little experience, say they’ve got a lease program