Hiring truck drivers is 'impossible,' Milwaukee companies say -- even amid huge demand for driver training courses

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- By now, you've probably seen the empty shelves at the grocery store and heard about the supply chain problems at the ports. So much of that begins with trucks. Drivers aren't getting the product out to market fast enough and consumers feel the effects of those delays.

CBS 58 dove deeper into how the national truck driver shortage is affecting Wisconsin companies and discovered they are getting creative in order to attract workers.

"It's difficult...Like I said, there's a driver shortage," said Casey Crangle, an employee at Milwaukee-based PDL Drivers Inc.

Crangle spends his days making phone calls to prospective candidates. But he took a roundabout path to recruitment.

"There was no passing it up. I think Chris offered me an amazing opportunity, and I took that opportunity," Crangle said.

He's talking about Chris Schmus, the CEO of PDL Drivers Inc. At just 23 years old, Schmus started his company out of his basement. The Milwaukee-based business supplies drivers to more than 1,000 clients in Wisconsin alone. But he's hit a bump in the road.

"It's one of the most difficult times that I've ever been through. I started this company 25 years ago, and hiring drivers right now is next to impossible," Schmus said.

Schmus just put Crangle, a family friend, through truck driver training school at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

"It's becoming to the point where I have to grow my own drivers in order to get them to where they are," Schmus said.

Though he has his commercial driver's license, Crangle is currently doing recruiting work because he isn't able to drive alone for the company. Because of insurance requirements, he will need two years of driving experience before he can be out on his own.

The company currently has between 100 and 150 employees, but Schmus said he could easily have 250 workers if he could find the help.

"We have a minimum of 100 unfilled orders that are going through us on a weekly basis," he explained.

In January, Schmus had to go on a route himself to Las Vegas. It was the first time he had done that in 15 years.

The American Trucking Associations says the country is short 80,000 truck drivers.

But there's some good news: Truck driving schools are loaded with applicants.

"The demand right now for truck driver training is huge. I don't believe that the industry's ever seen this interest, this desire to become a truck driver," said Dan Zdrojewski, a truck driving instructor at MATC.

Zdrojewski's classes are full. MATC only has so many instructors and simulators, so they have to keep class sizes small. It's probably not surprising most of his students tell him that money is their reasoning for taking his course.

"We offer them this training and all of a sudden so many doors open up, it's like they're in front of a buffet. So we've taken individuals from one extreme of not having any choices, to all the sudden an abundance of choices, with an average pay of our graduate being roughly around $68,000 a year," Zdrojewski said.

So why is there such a driver shortage? Those in the industry cite several factors including baby boomers retiring and more people going to college out of high school. Schmus said for teens who choose not to go to college and are looking for a trade, trucking isn't necessarily a good option because they can't cross state lines until they're 21 years old.

 Zdrojewski said the pandemic definitely exacerbated the problem.

"So we do have that aging population, and with COVID, many just hung up their hats," he explained.

The pandemic also affected fuel delivery. There were fewer drivers on the roads, so tank drivers got laid off and never came back to the field.

"What happens when there aren't enough truck drivers? How does that impact the system as a whole?" CBS 58's Rose Schmidt asked Zdrojewski.

"I believe that there is going to come that time where we are going to go to the grocery store and we expect for the milk to be in that cooler. We expect for those Doritos to be on the shelf...Guess what? You're going to go, and hopefully it's going to be there," Zdrojewski said.

Consumers have already seen shades of that during the pandemic.

Schmus said he's increased wages and benefit levels by 40 percent in the last year, but even that's not enough when there's a qualified candidate.

"(Students) often will have anywhere from 10 to 15 job offers by the time they are already finishing with our class," Zdrojewski said.

"Every company is competing for you," Schmus said.

So what in the industry has to change? Schmus said insurance regulations need to come down, laws need to change to allow 18-year-olds to cross state lines, and most of all: "We need more people. Period."

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