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Driver recruitment wars rage at MATS, booth after booth after booth

LOUISVILLE–Imagine walking through aisle after aisle of display booths and seeing multiple signs that say, in so many words,  “We want you bad.” But it’s not the same “We want you” with Uncle Sam’s finger pointing straight ahead. 

That was the scene at the Mid-America Trucking Show here, the first one since 2019, where all the endless online and radio advertisements from trucking companies looking for drivers come to life. There may be 100,000 carriers in the U.S., so they clearly aren’t all here recruiting drivers. But it sure seems that way.

In interviews with recruiters on the floor of MATS, the growing softness in the trucking market and the signs that rates are headed down show no sign of trickling down to the recruiting wars.  One by one, recruiters staffing their company’s booths all told FreightWaves the same thing: the market is as tight as ever.

“Everybody is busy and everybody is making money,” Corey Huey, a recruiter at Bruce Oakley Inc. said.

FreightWaves discussed the recruitment market with a cross-section of companies. Oakley, for example, is a specialized hauler of dry bulk products, such as grains or scrap metal. Huey said that possibly because of the unique nature of what the company transports, “we haven’t seen much of a change yet. It is a tough market out there.”

And Oakley’s model is different in that it only brings on owner operators with their own trucks. But the model can bring on a new owner operator as well; Huey and his colleagues Harrison Herrell and Kent Childers discussed a driver for Oakley who came on as an owner operator by buying a used truck, and then did well enough to move into a new truck. They noted, however, that the time between the new truck being ordered and it arriving–fairly recently–was a year.

(Huey also noted that Oakley had two owner operators in California, where the AB5 law on independent contractors has been blocked from implementation in trucking but still looms as something that could eventually have a vast impact on ICs in the state. One of the two drivers was “de-leased” by Oakley, trying to get in front of any AB5-related issues; a second moved out of state.)

The estimate on what some of the Oakley drivers are making was significantly higher than an important annual number released at MATS: the ATBS estimate of what the average owner operator made in 2021. 

ATBS is a financial services and accounting firm that services tens of thousands of independent owner operators. As a result, it handles a lot of tax returns. With most of those returns now completed, ATBS executives said in a presentation that the average owner operator last year made $72,000.

ATBS CEO Todd Amen had already signaled last year that the average for 2021 was likely to be in excess of $70,000. For the first six months of the year Amen said the average was  $70,310, a gain of $6,530 for the 12 months.

But given the unique nature of what it is hauling, the Oakley recruiters said many of their drivers are making $250,000 to $300,000 per year, with one husband/wife team making more than $400,000.

Michael Martin is the driver recruiting specialist for paint manufacturer Sherwin Willliams (NYSE: SHW), and while Oakley may be looking for owner operators to lease on to the company, Martin is looking to hire company drivers.

He said he’s got about 950 drivers now. And while Sherwin Wiliams does use owner operators to move its product to market, Martin said Sherwin Williams is looking for 200 more company drivers.

Martin provided that number when asked if the paint manufacturer was looking to expand its use of owner operators. “We’re going in the opposite direction,” he said, citing cost control and what his company sees as better service from company drivers as the reason for the push to bring in more employees.

The average company driver is making around $98,000 to $100,000, Martin said. That may be less than the specialty drivers at places like Oakley, but Martin noted that they have full benefits. Base rates at the company are between 66 to 72 cents per mile, Martin said, depending on the region.

And how hard is it to get those drivers? “It’s as competitive as ever,” Martin said. “COVID did a doozy on us and we’re having to adjust.”

Sherwin Williams’ most recent pay increase was at the end of 2021, “and we are constantly reevaluating.”

Stop by a company’s booth and you’re likely to find a difference in pay approaches every time. As Oakley’s Huey said, you need to make apples to apples comparisons. But it can be tough since everybody has a different structure, in part because they are not all in the same business.

Reefer carrier WEL Companies runs half owner operators and half employees. When FreightWaves stopped by their booth, the employee recruiter had stepped away, so the pitch was all about being an owner operator. 

Its pay package is a percentage: 70% of the load, according to Dylan Keester, director of contractor services.

He said the average revenue for each truck is $218,000—touted on its banners at the booth—and the 70% is taken off that base.

Keester said he’s been in the recruiting business for 12 years, and “I’ve never seen it as tight as this. There is no easing at all.”

Each of the companies visited on the floor was asked a version of the same question: with more than 100,000 new authorities issued by FMCSA last year, has that provided a visible new supply of drivers? There wasn’t a single affirmative answer.

Averitt Express, its booth drowned in the red color of the company that is known mostly as an LTL carrier, was recruiting for all its operations but with a focus on its regional truckload activities, according to Ken Chrisman, recruiting leader at the conference.

And sitting on its booth’s front table was a highly detailed sheet spelling out its current pay packages.

Starting pay for dry van, no hazmat: 52 cents per mile. Starting out and driving flatbed: 57 cents per mile. A $69 per diem. $20 per hour detention paid after two hours. Annual profit sharing of $2,391 to $2,621. And those were just a few.

Chrisman touted some of the company’s dedicated customers, like Cracker Barrel and the Alabama plant of Mercedes Benz, as being a strong attraction to potential drivers. And he said Averitt believes its retention rate is high.

Maybe it is. But as the action on the floor of MATS showed, any signs of slowdown in the freight market is not being met by a relaxation of efforts to put more drivers behind the wheel.

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The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes Averitt Express (No. 24).