Royal Jones always is looking for ways to grow his trucking company.
One thing making it more difficult to grow these days is the shortage of truck drivers. A national shortage of drivers is affecting trucking companies in El Paso and across the country.
"I need more drivers to increase my business," said Jones, co-founder and chief executive officer of Mesilla Valley Transportation, or MVT, one of the largest trucking companies in this area. "We are growing about six percent per year (in sales). We could grow more with more drivers."
"We're always short. I could use another 100 drivers," Jones said. "In today's world, people don't want to be gone from home that long (as required of long-haul truck drivers). "We probably pay a little more per mile (than some companies), but the main thing is to get drivers back home when they want to be home."
A growing list of federal rules and regulations also puts more pressure on drivers, which only adds to the stress of an already tough job and adds to the difficulty of recruiting drivers, Jones said.
The trucking industry has gone through driver shortages before. But the shortage evaporated in 2008 during the Great Recession. It reappeared in 2011 as truck shipping volumes began growing again, the American Trucking Associations noted in a recent analysis of the shortage.
The trucking industry is short almost 48,000 drivers now, and that number could rise to 175,000 by 2024 if current trends continue, the associations' report estimated. Most of the shortage is for long-haul truck drivers.
Almost 70 percent of freight is shipped via trucks, which means the driver shortage can be felt throughout the economy, the report said.
Mesilla Valley Transportation driver George Corral refuels his truck at the company's large truck terminal at 9525 Escobar in East El Paso. (Photo: RUBEN R. RAMIREZ / EL PASO TIMES)
The shortage has companies offering sign-on bonuses and other incentives. And wages are rising.
The annual salary for long-haul truck drivers last year ranged from $25,740 to more than $61,000 nationally, U.S. Department of Labor data show. The national average salary was $41,930 last year, the data show.
In El Paso, where wages are lower than many other areas of the country, the average salary for long-haul truck drivers was $36,280 last year, the DOL reported.
However, other studies and information from companies show annual salaries can go much higher than those averages.
Mesilla Valley Transportation drivers get from $35,000 to $75,000 a year, depending on experience and how many miles they log, Jones, the company's CEO, reported. Mesilla Valley and most other trucking companies pay drivers by the mile. Mesilla Valley pays 35 to 40 cents per mile for single drivers, and 22 to 26 cents per mile for two-driver teams. Those rates have increased several times in the last three years, Jones said.
An American Trucking Associations' study published late last year found the national median, or mid-point pay for drivers in 2013, ranged from $46,000 for drivers working for general, long-haul trucking companies, to $73,000 for private carriers, which are trucks operated by companies shipping products for their own use, such as retail chains.
Josh Hernandez, director of operations at Mustang Express, a small El Paso trucking company owned by his father, said money is important, but drivers also want other things, including more time at home, and respect, he said.
"It's a rough life. We try to make it as convenient for drivers as possible," Hernandez said. He didn't want to divulge the company's trade secrets, but its formula for dealing with drivers seems to be working because it has its 60 driver spots filled, and has another 20 drivers on its waiting list, he said.
Trucker Robert Johnson, who recently was taking a food break at a Milwaukee-area truck stop, said his pay has increased about 15 percent since he started driving 15 years ago. He's making $60,000 to $65,000 annually, he said.
That's good money, he said. But he'd rather have a job where he could be home with his wife every night instead of just weekends, he said.
About half the drivers on Mustang Express''s waiting list are drivers who left El Paso trucking companies a few years ago to work in more lucrative jobs in the oil fields in the Midland-Odessa area, Hernandez said. But with fuel prices plunging, oil-field companies have been laying people off, and those drivers are now trying to return to the shipping industry, he said.
"About five years ago, we had more trouble finding drivers" because the oil industry boom was luring drivers away from El Paso, Hernandez said.
New drivers are entering the market via several truck driving schools in El Paso. Mesilla Valley Transportation operates a school in Canutillo, Mesilla Valley Institute, which graduates about 20 drivers a week through its five-week programs, Jones reported. Not all those go to his company, he reported.
"Guys try it, and (many) don't like it," Jones said. "It's a tough life."
C.J. Peterson, director of recruiting for Danny Herman Trucking, a Tennessee-based company with a large East El Paso terminal, said not as many people are getting into truck driving as in years past.
"Maybe younger folks don't want to do it. They want to do something else," Peterson said.
The average age of a long-haul driver is 49, reported Bob Costello, chief economist at the American Trucking Associations' headquarters in the Washington, D.C., area. It'll take about 40,000 new drivers a year just to replace retirees, he said.
Add industry growth and other factors, and the trade group estimated the trucking industry will need about 89,000 new drivers per year for the next decade -- more than it's been attracting in recent years.
Also complicating the hiring process are stringent requirements from trucking companies' insurance providers, Mesilla Valley's Jones noted.
"If you have a DWI (driving while intoxicated) or other blemishes on your record, we can't hire you because" of the insurance company's requirements, Jones said.
Mustang Express's Hernandez said, "Insurance ultimately determines if we can bring a driver on. They need a good driving history," he said.