Truck drivers in short supply

August 20th, 2018

By Dave Gong | The Journal Gazette

Each time Fort Wayne resident Jacqueline Carroll has seen a Red River Waste Solutions truck, it's been manned by only one person. 

“From what I've seen, the old contractor would have two individuals in a truck and that seemed to speed things along,” Carroll told Fort Wayne City Council members Tuesday. 

A nationwide truck driver shortage is one challenge the city's new garbage contractor has faced since starting a $5 million garbage and recycling collection contract in January. The shortage is hitting industries from garbage collection to shipping to construction. It's also affecting area schools who rely on commercial driver's license, CDL, holders to transport students. 

Texas-based Red River took over garbage collection duties from Republic Services, which is based in Arizona and was Fort Wayne's waste collection contractor for 20 years. 

Carroll said the driver who handles her route is doing an outstanding job, but running into problems with large items thrown away when tenants of nearby rental units move out. 

“Instead of the truck just being able to grab a bin and dump, the guy has to get out of the truck and physically put objects in. That's where not having two per truck is causing an issue.” 

Councilmen Tom Didier, R-3rd, and John Crawford, R-at large, have also noticed the challenge that creates.

“I was out in a neighborhood (Tuesday) and there was a trash truck coming by and there was just one driver. He had to stop the truck and get out because there was a very large set of dresser drawers out there that someone left out,” Crawford said. “There was no way he was going to be able to pick it up himself. So I helped him pick it up and put it in the truck.”

There's certainly competition for drivers, said Steve Smith, Red River's regional vice president. The company has lost a few drivers to construction operations, he said. To combat that, Smith said Red River has hired a full-time recruiter. The company also highlights its compensation and benefits package when recruiting.

“Usually we have pretty good overall rates with recruiting,” Smith said. “It has been a highly competitive market here, but we've seen that nationwide, particularly in the garbage industry.”

The shortage of drivers with a commercial license affects local businesses and organizations as much as it impacts large national chains. An search of CDL Driver jobs in Indiana yielded 4,449 results, 334 in Fort Wayne. 

In March, an American Trucking Associations study found that the average salary for a truckload driver working a “national, irregular route” was more than $53,000 per year. Private fleet drivers saw their pay jump from an average of $73,000 a year to $86,000.  

“If I had four really good drivers today, I would hire them all,” said Bart Bunn, owner of Bunn Inc., a Fort Wayne trucking company. “I would hire six if I had them.” 

Bunn Inc. has been operating since 1984 and employs about 130 people. 

Bunn said it's currently a driver's market, which means businesses have to be more competitive with compensation, benefits and incentives to attract and retain drivers. 

“It's kind of like, you have to lead or get run over,” Bunn said. “We can't do anything without the employees. Without them, you have nothing.”

Citilink, Fort Wayne's public transit bus service, could use three to five more drivers. It will likely have a class soon for potential employees, said Betsy Kachmar, assistant general manager. 

Citilink has a bonus program that awards any new employee a sign-on incentive of $1,500, paid out in three installments, according to documents provided by Citilink. Any employee who refers a new hire to the company can earn $250 at the end of the candidate's probation. 

Fort Wayne Community Schools is almost always short on bus drivers, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. The school system helps new drivers enroll in CDL classes, but drivers must pay for the classes themselves, Stockman added. She also noted when Red River came to Fort Wayne, FWCS lost several bus drivers to the waste management company. 

FWCS has a new recruitment video for drivers on the school corporation's YouTube channel. 

Staffing challenges aren't limited to behind the wheel, either. Bunn noted that every side of his business could use extra help. The driver shortage – and a more broad need for workers in northeast Indiana – means hiring people whenever possible, Bunn said. Especially when there's more work than workers. 

“You don't let good qualified people go by,” Bunn said. “You don't.”

The city of Fort Wayne hasn't been affected by the driver shortage as severely as others, said Shan Gunawardena, the city's Public Works director. This is primarily because the city hires drivers and does their CDL training in-house. Training for those employees consists of leaf removal, snow removal, paving, sewer maintenance and other skills in addition to CDL training, Gunawardena said, which means drivers have skills beyond driving.  

The Indiana Department of Transportation has not noticed a shortage of CDL drivers, spokeswoman Nichole Hacha-Thomas said. INDOT does provide CDL training and most, if not all, applicants receive their license within 90 days. 

Several schools offer CDL training in Indiana. Ivy Tech's website, for example, boasts the ability to earn a CDL in as few as four weeks. 

“Ivy Tech CDL training aligns with the PTDI 'gold standard' curriculum,” the website states. “The Class A program is a 160-hour course (completed in three to four weeks) which allows the maximum time for behind-the-wheel training, giving you the most time in a hands-on environment driving/controlling the vehicle, so you can pass your CDL Skills test to earn your CDL.”

As Red River works to shore up the number of drivers it has working in Fort Wayne, the company has publicly acknowledged several of its shortcomings, especially after being fined thousands of dollars for missed collections. Last week, the company took out a full-page ad in The Journal Gazette to apologize to the community and pledge better service moving forward.

Still, the Fort Wayne City Council is set to contemplate a nonbinding resolution Tuesday to support finding Red River in material breach of its contract.

Should the resolution pass, it is up to Mayor Tom Henry's administration to determine whether to begin the procedure to try to break Red River's contract. Representatives from the company are expected to deliver a presentation during Tuesday's meeting.

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