CDLs Fly South for Shift Work
Lower 48 companies recruit Alaskans to meet demand
A Sourdough Express truck pulls a trailer with a bulldozer on the Parks Highway south of Cantwell. Sourdough Express trains many of its drivers internally, starting them on the paved roads and gradually moving them up to the harder roads like the Dalton Highway.
Demand for qualified truck drivers in the Lower 48 has been so strong in recent years that some of the big national trucking companies have come to Alaska to look for labor.
One company even offers Alaska drivers a deal that flips the usual Alaska out-of-state worker arrangement on its head: recently recruited truck drivers at Green Bay, Wisconsin-based Schneider National can live in Alaska and be flown to the Lower 48 to work three-week shifts.
By his count, sixty-seven graduates of the Northern Industrial Training (NIT) trade school in Palmer have taken rotational schedule jobs at Schneider in the last two-and-a-half years, says Joey Crum, president and CEO of NIT.
Schneider reports it currently has twenty-seven Alaska residents driving various routes in the Lower 48. It’s worth the expense to recruit Alaska drivers because of the quality of candidate the company gets, says Rob Reich, Schneider’s senior vice president for equipment, maintenance, and driver development.
“We have found the work ethic, attention to safety, and professionalism to be worthy of the investment,” he says.
Crum is a former truck driver who recently finished a term as president of the Alaska Trucking Association. He’s been at NIT for fifteen years and says he’s never seen a labor market so hot in the Lower 48 that a company was willing to regularly fly employees to work from Alaska.
"The industry finds a way,” he says. “If they can't find what they need locally, they'll find it somewhere else.”
Nebraska-based Werner Enterprises and Tennessee-based TCW have also come to Alaska to recruit drivers recently, although these companies were looking for drivers willing to relocate to the Lower 48, Crum says.
While the job market for truck drivers may be red hot in the Lower 48, it’s also still strong in Alaska, Crum says. At 7.3 percent, Alaska’s unemployment rate is a few points higher than the national rate. But Crum says there are always jobs somewhere in the state available for people who have commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs). The trucking industry employs thousands of Alaskans and continues to bring in nonresident drivers for hard-to-fill jobs.
Like seafood processing, hospitality, and the oil industry, trucking has traditionally been an Alaska industry that depends heavily on out-of-state workers. According to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s most recent report on nonresident workers, out-of-state drivers represented 18.5 percent of the workforce of 3,602 heavy and tractor-trailer drivers in 2016. That category of driver made an average quarterly wage of almost $14,000 that year. The nonresident count includes both seasonal workers and those who live elsewhere and regularly fly in for rotations.
Crum says that since 2016, oil and gas companies have flown in fewer commercial truck drivers from out of state. But he says the practice remains common in the seafood processing industry where companies frequently struggle to find qualified drivers at their remote plants.
Instructor Gerry Graves shows a student how to properly hook up air lines to a trailer at Northern Industrial Training in Palmer.
A Graying Workforce
In both Alaska and the Lower 48, the trucking industry is seeing an aging workforce. According to the Commercial Carrier Journal, a trade publication, almost 60 percent of the national driver workforce is older than 45.
Nationally, a dearth of young drivers is sometimes blamed for what some see as a pending existential crisis in the driving industry. Under this theory, young people are avoiding the trucking industry out of concern that self-driving cars and trucks will make the jobs obsolete in their lifetimes.
Crum says autonomous trucks will eventually make their way to way to Alaska highways. But he argues that’s not a reason for young people to avoid the industry. Automation, he says, will assist drivers, not replace them.
“Some of those vehicles are the wave of the future. It’s going to happen,” he says. “The response to this from both the American and Alaskan trucking associations is the same and that is: planes are almost fully automated. But when is the last time you got on a plane that didn’t have a pilot?”
In the Lower 48, the work schedule of long-haul truckers may also be discouraging some younger people from pursuing truck driving jobs. But that’s less of a factor in Alaska, says Aves Thompson, executive director of the Alaska Trucking Association. Alaska is a big state, but there are few long routes that take employees away from home for weeks, he says. A trucker can go from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay and back in few days.
A Schneider National truck near the company's headquarters in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Schneider recruits drivers in Alaska, including some drivers who live in Alaska and are flown down to work shifts in the Lower 48.
In both Alaska and across the United States, Crum believes two federal regulations on CDLs have made it hard to recruit young drivers: the marijuana drug testing requirement and the requirement that drivers be twenty-one years old before they can drive freight that comes from out of state.
Both these issues hit Alaska especially hard. Despite the Alaska law that legalized marijuana for recreational use on a state level in 2015, marijuana is still illegal at a federal level, so applicants for a CDL must pass a drug test that screens for marijuana. A 2017 report on testing results from national drug testing lab Quest Diagnostics showed an increase in positive tests for marijuana in states—including Alaska—that have recently legalized it.
The drug testing narrows the pool of potential applicants, which can be a boon for job seekers who don’t consume pot, says Crum.
“It’s become the job security for people who are willing to adhere to the regulations. It doesn’t mean they have to like them, they just are what they are,” he says.
The age requirement is especially important because of Alaska’s geographic isolation, Crum says.
“You can get a CDL in Alaska when you are nineteen, but you can’t haul anything that’s interstate freight until you’re twenty-one. In Alaska, how much stuff do we actually make here?” he says. “There are limited entry points because of what I truly believe are onerous regulations.”
The Alaska Trucking Association and the national American Trucking Associations both support HR 5358, a bill in Congress known as the DRIVE-Safe Act that would lower driving age requirements.
“I’m not an advocate of taking an eighteen year old and putting them behind the wheel of a tractor trailer and immediately putting them down the road, while I believe there are eighteen year olds who can handle it and do it well,” Crum says.
“There are a lot of vehicles like those delivery vans that FedEx and UPS drives that don’t require CDLs but are considered commercial motor vehicles, which mean the same rules apply that you can’t haul that [interstate] freight until you’re twenty-one.”
Keeping younger drivers from driving these smaller vehicles makes it harder to recruit them to later drive larger trucks, he says.
“We’re recruiting from a secondary workforce is basically what it is. We are telling our high school graduates for the next three to five years to not get in trouble, to find meaningful employment, to not do drugs, and then in three to five years to come back and join us.”
The legislation to change the driving age isn’t popular across the entire trucking industry. Nationally, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association opposes the legislation and calls the labor shortage predicted by the American Trucking Associations a myth created to drive down labor costs. The independent owners argue that enough new and re-instated CDLs enter the labor market each year to cover the anticipated demand.
A Sourdough Express truck pulls a bulker trailer on the Dalton Highway.
Getting a CDL
Becoming a commercial truck driver requires a written test, a driving test, and a health exam. The training to pass those tests can come from school or on-the-job training.
In Palmer at NIT, which is the largest CDL training provider in Alaska, new drivers typically take a $9,000 class that covers 240 hours and is usually taught over six 40-hour weeks, says Crum. The class curricula include learning to shift and steer large trucks, using air brakes, inspecting vehicles and cargo, and backing trucks into docking stations. Students practice on the eighty-acre Alaska State Fair parking lot before moving on to public roads.
Last year NIT graduated 146 long term truck driving students (usually new drivers looking to break into the industry) and 271 students who came to the school for a refresher class or just to take the driving tests.
When companies look for drivers to hire, they look for experience and critical thinking, Crum says. Critical thinking is essential because, by the nature of the job, truck drivers must be independent.
“Every employer is going to take you on a road test,” Crum says. “With somebody watching you, you’re going to have to get in and drive the truck.”
These tests are usually done “cold” without the driver getting to practice on the company’s truck. The examiners look for employees who can quickly master unfamiliar equipment, Crum says.
Entry level trucking jobs often involve driving within a city, hauling freight such as produce, water, trash, or lumber, he says.
More experienced drivers can get typically higher-paying jobs hauling freight longer distances or working on construction jobs. With additional training, truckers can get qualifications to drive specialized cargos such as hazardous materials and double-trailer trucks.
Students conduct a pre-trip inspection on a truck to make sure it is safe to drive at Northern Industrial Training.
Although most CDL training in Alaska is done through schools like NIT, trucking companies are increasingly offering internal CDL training, Crum says.
At Sourdough Express, a Fairbanks-based freight and moving business, there’s a pipeline to commercial truck driver jobs that starts with hauling furniture and boxes in and out of houses. The company employs 120 people, of which 70 have their CDLs.
Most Sourdough Express drivers received CDL training outside the company, but, where possible, Sourdough Express tries to promote from within, training people as-necessary to get their CDLs, says Josh Norum, business director of operations. Generally people advance from being laborers for the moving business to moving drivers to freight drivers.
”We kind of have a structure. We like to get the most out of guys who work for us so they don’t get bored, get burnt out,” Norum says.
Employees who train to earn a CDL start by reading the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles CDL manual and a company study guide to prepare for the written test. When they’ve passed the test and have their permit, drivers start practicing with company trucks.
"We have a couple guys at each terminal who we've trusted and who enjoy training new people," Norum says. "The biggest thing with the CDL is just having the seat time to get out and practice."
Employees usually spend about eighty hours driving by the time they’re ready to schedule a driving test with the Division of Motor Vehicles.
There’s no special government requirement to drive the Dalton Highway up to Prudhoe Bay, but Sourdough requires additional training for drivers who don’t have Dalton Highway experience.
“It takes a lot of trips,” Norum says. “People don’t know how fast the road can bite you. When you’re going loaded, stuff happens faster on that road than any other road in Alaska.”
Employees without experience on the highway spend at least two years driving trucks on paved roads before starting on the Prudhoe Bay service road. To drive the road in the winter, drivers must spend a summer learning the road and make five winter trips accompanied by another driver.
Sam Friedman is a freelance writer in Fairbanks.