WENATCHEE — Just a few years ago, Midland Trucking would receive a dozen driver applications a week. Then the shortage started.
“And now we’re lucky if we get one or two a month,” said Jimmy Sherrell, the company’s owner since 1995.
Semi trucks are still the spine of nearly all retail and commerce in America, delivering 71.5 percent of the nation’s freight. But thousands of companies, including Midland, are now struggling to find enough people to pilot them.
Midland advertises daily on Craigslist, Facebook and in classified ads, but it still has more trucks than drivers. During the summer cherry harvest, both the owner and the dispatcher get behind the wheel to keep up with demand.
Now Midland is raising wages and hiring bonuses to attract recruits. It’s a trend that’s common across the industry, said James McCormack of hiring firm Trucking Careers of America.
“As far as the competition, it’s brutal right now because they’re just begging for drivers,” he said. “They’re offering all kinds of crazy stuff. They’ve increased their bonuses as well as their pay. It’s kind of a driver’s market now, that’s for sure.”
For Midland, tree fruit is king — it accounts for more than 95 percent of their annual cargo.
Even in the offseason, their trucks are hauling apples between warehouses as companies buy and sell different sizes and varieties.
Then the fruit ripens, harvest begins and Midland kicks into high gear. Their trucks transport fresh fruit from orchards to packing sheds, then across Blewett Pass to airports where it’ll be flown around the globe.
And the local produce business is only getting busier for the company. Midland used to transport 40,000 bins for just one of its local customers each year.
“Then it went to 60,000 bins a year, then 80,000 bins a year; and now, it can be somewhere between 120,000 and 150,000 bins a year,” Sherrell said.
That’s because as fruit-growing techniques have improved, growers can now produce more fruit per acre than ever.
Sherrell believes a similar scenario might be happening nationally: as the economy rises, the transport business can’t keep up, he said.
“I believe that because the growth of our economy, and the growth of the business industry itself, there’s just more things to move,” Sherrell said.
That’s sent companies on a mad dash to hire. Walmart hired 1,400 new drivers in 2018 to transport its goods and expects to add hundreds more this year, the company said in a press release.
“It’s driven the wages up to where if you are even thinking about getting an employee, you’re going to be spending astronomical numbers,” Sherrell said. “We used to spend 26 cents a mile just five or six years ago. Now we’re paying 50 cents to try to get a driver.”
Walmart’s drivers now earn an average of $87,500 a year, according to the release. Midland’s drivers are sitting right there too.
“We have guys that didn’t finish high school making $80,000 a year plus benefits,” Sherrell said. “My top four guys last year all made over $70,000 plus benefits.”
So why aren’t more people lining up for the opportunity?
It’s a hard business to get into and it’s just as hard to stay in. In Washington state drivers have to train for and then receive a commercial driving license. The whole process can cost thousands.
“That hurts our recruiting world too because a guy has to say ‘OK, this is what I really want to do.’ It’s kind of like going to college,” Sherrell said.
Once a driver is in the industry, every step in the driving process — from hours to distance to speed — is regulated using in-truck computers.
“That complicates things because most of these truck drivers aren’t highly educated people. Not to put them down or anything, but we have a blue-collar force,” Sherrell said. “These guys are now having to work computers, they’re having to log their times in and out.”
Many of the regulations are a good thing because safety has improved, Sherrell said. But they’ve also pushed some drivers out of the business completely.
“I think that’s another reason why you see our recruiting going to hell in a handbasket, because these guys that used to be able to grab onto the steering wheel, shift the gears and fly down the road, they’re not in existence anymore,” he said. “It’s too difficult for them to roll how they want to so they’ve chosen to go to a different field.”
There’s not an easy solution to the problem, but encouraging the career path would be a good start, Sherrell said.
“The one thing I would really like to see is Wenatchee Valley College and the high school throwing truck driving into their trade school programs,” he said. “A guy can make a very good living working five days a week.”
But until a shift like that can take effect, all trucking companies will be struggling to balance in this new world. And for local companies, the shortage makes an exceptionally big difference, Sherrell said.
“(Big companies) are operating on a 2 percent profit margin, but they’re doing large volumes. They’re doing that with 5,000 trucks,” he said. “Me, I’ve got 20 trucks and I’m trying to live on a 5 to 8 percent profit margin. So when you calculate all those numbers out, it’s a little different. It’s harder for a little guy to compete.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June issue of the Wenatchee Valley Business World.