Aldrew Meeks, a 36-year-old package delivery worker, is no stranger to long work hours and little sleep.

But his life in the coming years could also bring him farther away from his home in Chesterfield County, as long as his goal of earning his Class A commercial driver’s license and becoming a truck driver comes to fruition.

The father of two is currently working through his classroom and behind-the-wheel lessons at 5 Star CDL Training School on East Belt Boulevard in Richmond.

Though Meeks currently holds a stable job, where he works from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. before starting his commercial driver’s license training for the day, he’s looking for an opportunity to better himself — an opportunity he sees in the trucking industry.

“It’s getting old,” Meeks said of his current job. “A hundred stops a day and running from dogs. It pays the bills, but [trucking] is something I could really see myself doing. I feel like I’m still in my prime.”

Meeks is one of thousands of future truckers the industry will need to recruit in the coming years in an effort to combat a growing shortage of drivers nationwide, which has driven spikes in freight costs and resulted in delivery delays.

By the end of 2018, the trucker shortage is expected to surpass 63,000 drivers — a number that would swell to more than 174,000 by 2026 if trends hold, according to the American Trucking Associations.

“[The shortage] is definitely still a huge problem,” said Will Smith, vice president of sales at Chesterfield-based Abilene Motor Express Inc., which is now part of Knight-Swift Transportation Holdings Inc., the largest full truckload carrier in North America.

“It’s arguably borderline epidemic within the industry,” Smith said.

Over the next decade, the industry will need to hire about 900,000 new drivers, or about 90,000 per year, according to the American Trucking Associations. Over half of new-driver hires will replace those drivers retiring from the profession, though industry growth will account for about another third of new employees.

“The driver shortage is a nationwide issue that the transportation industry has faced for several years,” said Billy Hupp, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Estes Express Lines, a Richmond-based freight transportation provider that employs more than 8,000 drivers.

“More drivers are retiring from the profession than are entering it.”

***

With America’s trucker shortage projected to worsen in the coming years, Richmond-area companies are upping their efforts to attract new drivers and keep the ones they have.

Along with raising pay, trucking businesses in the area and across the country are adding fringe benefits in an effort to revitalize a profession that struggles to shake off its negative perception and attract young employees.

Abilene Motor operates more than 400 tractors that provide truckload and volume less-than-truckload services in the U.S. and Canada.

The company has raised driver pay three times in about the past 16 months, Smith said.

As other trucking companies across the country also have hiked pay and implemented bonuses, Abilene Motor is taking different approaches, including focusing attention on the more intangible aspects of the work.

“Of any trucking company I’ve experienced, we’re most fastidious with our equipment,” Smith said. “We want our drivers to have dependable, good-looking, safe equipment, which behooves both driver and customer. It creates a sense of pride to have a nice rig.”

Abilene Motor, like others, also has created incentive programs to give drivers a raise in pay per mile depending on experience. A program announced in July will give drivers employed with the company since Jan. 1 a bonus based on miles driven and seniority. The money will accrue throughout the year.

The company requires its drivers to be at least 23 years old and have a year of experience, with drivers paid based on cents per mile driven and depending on years of experience. Abilene drivers are typically expected to drive 2,500 to 3,000 miles per week, Smith said, which can range based on demand.

The 2017 median pay for tractor-trailer truck drivers was $42,480, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

***

To supplant its trucking fleet, Estes offers an opportunity for internal and external candidates of the company to obtain their Class A commercial driver’s license through its dock-to-driver career path.

After a period of learning dock operations, driver trainees receive classroom and road training to prepare them to earn their CDL.

The company also says it places a high priority on factors unrelated to money.

“Another way that Estes is addressing the shortage is by retaining our existing drivers and recruiting others by investing in modern equipment, focusing on safety and offering some of the most competitive pay and benefits in the industry,” Hupp said. “We’re also family-driven with a family-inspired culture, so treating our drivers well is part of how we do business.”

The company also offers an in-house driver training program, which lets employees earn their CDL while receiving a paycheck and without paying tuition. The cost to attend a trucking school generally ranges from $3,000 to $7,000, depending on whether the program prepares drivers for a Class A or a Class B CDL, according to AllTrucking, which provides education and employment information related to the trucking industry.

A Class A commercial driver’s license enables a driver to operate any combination of vehicles with a gross combination weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more, including a towed vehicle heavier than 10,000 pounds, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. A Class B CDL is required to operate a vehicle towing another vehicle weighing up to 10,000 pounds.

Howard Boisseau, co-owner of 5 Star CDL Training School, which offers Class A and B commercial driver’s license training, said his program trains truckers on all things “A to Z.” The driving school, whose enrollment cost is about $4,500 to $5,000, provides classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction, with about 10 to 15 students per class. The company offers a discount for students paying in cash.

“More and more students are calling in to get the training,” he said. “We definitely do hands-on [training]. A lot of [driver schools] just throw people out there, but tractor-trailers can be dangerous if not taught the proper way.”

***

With trucks moving more than 70 percent of the nation’s freight by weight, accounting for nearly $740 billion in gross freight revenue, the trucker shortage also has resulted in delivery delays and higher shipping costs.

“We’re having to tell a customer ‘no’ more now and having to make arrangements with customers,” Abilene Motor’s Smith said. “There’s more freight than there are trucks.”

The shortage also means that shipping costs have skyrocketed. For instance, General Mills, the maker of Cheerios and Betty Crocker, said prices of some of its cereals and snacks are going up because of an “unprecedented” rise in freight costs. Tyson Foods, a large meat seller, and John Deere, a farm and construction equipment, also recently announced they will increase prices, blaming higher shipping costs.

Trucking executives say their industry is experiencing a perfect storm: The economic upswing is creating heavy demand for trucks, but it’s hard to find drivers with unemployment so low.

The driver shortage, which has plagued the industry for the past 15 years, results from a variety of factors.

The median age of over-the-road truck drivers is 49, seven years higher than the median age of all U.S. workers, according to the American Trucking Associations. With that, companies are forced to contend with a workforce largely aging into retirement.

Adding to that woe is the federal requirement that tractor-trailer drivers be at least 21 years old to drive across state lines.

Once in the interstate trucking industry, the job itself also carries its own set of drawbacks, particularly for drivers with families who have little desire to spend weeks away from home. Though experienced drivers can sometimes opt for local positions and return home every night, newer drivers often don’t have that option.

“Truck driving is as close to being active-duty military in terms of time being away from home,” Smith said. “A lot of things happen when you’re on the road and can’t get home. You do miss a lot of things.”

The pool of drivers seeking employment in the industry also is constrained by a gender differential. Though women comprise nearly 47 percent of U.S. workers, they make up just 6 percent of truck drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations.

Despite the factors often inhibiting participation in the industry, the driver shortage is also a result of criteria and standards implemented in individual companies. Based on a 2015 study, 88 percent of fleets said they received enough applicants, but many failed to meet certain qualifications, according to the American Trucking Associations. The group said the situation likely hasn’t improved since then.

“There could be all kinds of reasons [for that issue],” said Dale Bennett, president and CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association. Those include drug and alcohol testing or past driving history.

Abilene Motor, for example, requires that its drivers have no DUI or reckless driving convictions in the past five years or any failed drug or alcohol screenings.

***

As an industry, trucking could see changes coming its way in the near future.

“We’re having real problems getting truck drivers, and not because of pay,” said George Hoffer, a transportation economist and adjunct professor at the University of Richmond. “High school grads would rather do construction work than do truck driving — the pay is equally good.”

Given those challenges and rising labor costs, the trucking industry could see autonomous vehicles enter into the tractor-trailer market before they break through to the auto industry, Hoffer said.

For example, Tesla announced a prototype version of the Tesla Semi, the company’s electric and semi-autonomous truck, in November and can now be reserved by customers. The company estimates that the truck, planned for production in 2019, would save more than $200,000 in fuel costs.

“Realistically, the economics of the autonomous vehicle make sense in the trucking industry,” Hoffer said. “Logically, they should be innovated first in the trucking industry.”

acline@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6349

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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