On a blistering July afternoon, truckers at TA and Petro stops in Ohio played basketball, cooled off in a 60-seat theater showing Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law in “Sherlock Holmes” and had their blood pressure checked by nurse practitioners. TravelCenters of America (TA.A), which runs TA and Petro rest stops, and other truck stop operators have spent millions of dollars over the last two years on jogging trails, gyms, clinics, private showers and healthier menus in a bid to enhance driver loyalty and keep the country’s 3 million truckers on the road.
Trucking companies are conducting a parallel campaign. Worried they cannot afford pay hikes big enough to retain experienced drivers and entice new ones. Many carriers offer perks and cushier sleeper cabs to improve the job’s quality of life. “Probably the number one thing is pay, but the showers and other amenities and restaurants are all fantastic,” said Toney of Brevard, North Carolina, who has been driving for more than 30 years.
Keeping enough drivers on the road is critical for the industry, which moves about two-thirds of all freight in the United States. But a shortage of drivers, already approaching 100,000 truckers, is deepening even with U.S. unemployment over 8 percent.
Over the past year, earnings for “truckload” carriers, which haul loads for a single customer from pick-up to the final drop-off, have increased 8 percent, but remain about 30 percent below the pre-recession peak, said Fowler. Trucking industry analysts say it would take double-digit pay increases to make a serious dent in the high turnover rates.
Weeks at a time on the road away from friends and family can make a long-haul trucking career a tough sell. But companies are starting to hire husband-and-wife teams and allow drivers to bring pets to ease the lonely time on the road. Women make up less than 5 percent of all drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations.
Mike Armstrong, a driver based in Camden, South Carolina who said he has borderline high blood pressure, stopped at the StatCare clinic in TA’s Lodi rest-stop to have his pressure checked while his rig was being repaired. He said he plans to make full use of the gyms, jogging trails and clinics. Armstrong also likes the bigger cabs that truck companies are now buying for their fleets. “I just can’t see staying out two or three weeks in those little-bitty cooped up things.”
New trucks in the fleets of Con-way Truckload, Ryder and others are also sporting GPS, Sirius XM (SIRI.O) satellite radio, DVD players and satellite dishes.Con-way Truckload for the first time is having drivers test trucks from various manufacturers and seeking feedback. It recruits in hard-hit cities like Detroit, reimburses tuition for new drivers who take training courses, and allows drivers who are farmers to resign during planting season and rejoin without losing seniority.
Swift began a quarterly performance pay bonus in July to “retain and reward drivers” with up to 6 cents extra per mile. Driving students are also hotly pursued.
Companies that dominate truck stop business all have invested in the past two years on extras. Pilot spent $135 million on upgrades to showers, restrooms, delis and restaurants after taking over Flying J in 2010, and plans to invest $49 million more by the end of 2013. TravelCenters, the only publicly traded truck stop operator, spent $171 million in 2011 and $40 million in the first quarter on upgrades.
TA does not break out revenue from new amenities, but the spending may be paying off. Total revenue rose to $7.9 billion in 2011 from $6 billion in 2010 and $4.7 billion in 2009. (Reporting By Lynn Adler; Editing by Patricia Kranz)