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Our economy is built on truckers, and we’re starting to run out.

It wasn’t until after Johnny Williams lost his job as a website designer in August 2016 that he started to actually notice all of those “DRIVE TRUCKS FOR US” advertisements plastered on semitractor-trailers.

Williams, who is 36 and lives in Cudahy, took the bait and went back to school. He earned his Class A commercial driver’s license (CDL) in two months at Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Oak Creek campus and is set to earn more than $55,000 in his first year behind the wheel of a big rig.

Despite a high demand for newcomers like Williams, there is still a major shortage, felt at every level of the supply chain. Delivery delays are becoming increasingly common, and it will become more noticeable when retailers and grocery stores can’t stock their shelves. Amazon raised the price of its Prime subscription from $99 to $119 in May, blaming rising shipping costs. Dozens of other multibillion-dollar companies have reported similar upcharges.

The nation needs at least 90,000 new truckers in the next 10 years to replace the drivers leaving the business and retiring, plus another 55,000 to resolve the scarcity, says former state Sen. Neal Kedzie, now president of the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association. Automated driving technologies might alleviate some symptoms of the shortage but won’t end it.

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Photo courtesy of Johnny Williams

“They have to change the image of the truck driver,” says Dan Zdrojewski, a truck driving instructor at MATC. Williams – a 5-foot-5, 165-pound, cleanshaven Honduran-American – is baffled when friends tell him that he doesn’t look like a trucker; he’s not sure what truck drivers are supposed to look like.

Lenient government oversight led to years of industry abuse, Zdrojewski says, as bosses placed undue stress on overworked and underpaid drivers. Pay and work conditions are getting better, but the memory remains.

“Not even other truck drivers are referring other people into this industry, because they have been so mistreated,” says Zdrojewski, who is 44 and drove trucks for 20 years.

And with a new, federally mandated curriculum for CDL education programs coming in February 2020, it’s going to start taking longer – perhaps as much as two more weeks at MATC – to certify new drivers, according to Zdrojewski.

Stricter regulations aim to protect drivers, but even some advocates think the pendulum has swung back too far. Even if drivers want extra overtime, for example, complex hours-of-service rules set firm maximums.

“The [U.S. Department of Transportation] has to loosen up its restrictions,” says Rocky Holmgren, vice president of West Allis-based Transport Services. “It’s devastating to the industry. … As long as [the driver] gets eight hours of sleep, who cares?”

Even newly minted driver Williams has already seen over-regulation. “That’s half of the reason why we’re short. Some of the trucking rules are just ridiculous,” he says.

Williams doesn’t plan to be a trucker forever. But for now, he’s happy with good wages, benefits, job security and listening to podcasts as he traverses Wisconsin in his big rig. “It can be a career, or a stepping stone to something else,” he says. “Once you get a CDL Class A, then you can drive basically any vehicle.” He laughs and adds: “Shy of being a pilot or a captain on a cruise liner.”

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I’ve got a golden ticket

Driver’s ed looks a little different at MATC.

The truck driving course is maxed at 12 students, whose median age is 38, far from pimply pubescence. Those who survive the eight-week, 320-hour intensive course almost certainly get a job.

“Everybody is hiring,” says Dan Zdrojewski, one of the program’s two lead educators. “The CDL is often known as the golden ticket. You take care of that golden ticket, it’s going to take care of you.”

The class costs just under $3,000. Thanks to a scholarship, Johnny Williams paid only a few hundred bucks. To enroll, all you need is a high school diploma, clean drug test, and driver’s license, and you have to pass the one-week permit class.

Upon opening in fall 2013, MATC’s truck driving program had trouble finding students. One session even got canceled last year. Now there’s a waitlist to get in.

Milwaukeean Pancho Villa, 23, earned his CDL from the program in July. (Yes, it’s his real name, right there on his license.) He had several offers within a week.

“It’s easier to get a job [with a CDL] than with a bachelor’s degree or something,” Villa says. “Seeing semis on the road, I was like, ‘Oh I want to do that.’”

Now he can.


“Long Haul, Short Supply” appears in the September 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning September 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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