"I judge by how many columns there are, and when it gets up to one entire page the shortage is real," said Clowdis, who advises freight companies. "On any of the talk-radio stations you get nothing but truck driver ads."
Trucking firms are confronting a "quality-driver shortage" made worse by workers leaving the job because of the long hours and time away from home, which boosts demand for the most experienced with clean driving records, according to Tripper Allen, president of Group1201, a Marietta, Ga.-based advertising firm that specializes in truck-driver recruitment.
Adding to the shortage is turnover because the "challenges and sacrifices" of long hours and stress don't make the paycheck worth it, according to Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Grain Valley, Mo.-based Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
Companies including Werner Enterprises are doing more to retain drivers by keeping them closer to home. The Omaha, Neb.-based trucker, whose routes span North America from Alaska to Mexico, gets about 70 percent of its drivers home once a week, up from about one-third five years ago, said Werner Chief Operating Officer Derek Leathers. That reduces the extended trips that have been one of the biggest barriers to retention in the industry, he said.
Yet he sees more challenges ahead in recruiting if there is a sustained recovery in housing and construction, which both pull workers from the same labor force as truckers.
"We could be faced with a very tight driver market before the end of the year really depending on at what pace the economy starts to recover," said Leathers, a 22-year industry veteran. "Drivers are becoming more and more of a scarce resource every day."
As a newly minted trucker, Boyd says learning the trade gave him a new outlook.
"You just have a whole new appreciation for what these guys go out and do on a day-to-day basis: the complexity, the safety," Boyd said. "You always have to be on your toes. You can't let your mind wander."
— With assistance from Lorraine Woellert in Washington and Anthony Feld in New York.