Joe Aguilar wanted to become a truck driver because his dad was one, and he’s fascinated by trucks’ machinery.

As a driver for Regional Steel the past six years, he’s able to live his dream of being out on the open road and still come home every night to his 10-year-old and 5-year-old daughters.

“The best part about it is you’re out all the time, and you meet new people every day. I’d rather do that than be in an office job where you don’t get to see anyone, you don’t get to talk to very many people,” said Aguilar, 45. “Some days I get off at 1 or 2 in the afternoon. I’ve got the rest of that time to spend with (my daughters). I’ve never missed a first step, their first talk. That’s what I love about this job.”

Regional Steel offers its six drivers what many companies don’t – the chance to be home every night and on weekends. Despite this fact, the company is still impacted by the national shortage of truck drivers.

The U.S. is short about 63,000 drivers – which could double in a few years, causing merchandise to not be replenished as quickly and prices to increase, said Gary Petty, National Private Truck Council president and chief executive officer.

Regional Steel uses third-party companies along with its own drivers to deliver steel. The drivers are crucial to the business because they deliver the materials the company sells, said Chad Hall, general manager. Hall hired a driver this month, which was much more challenging than usual.

“The applicant pool is the smallest we’ve ever seen it. Typically we can get about 25, maybe 35 (applicants), but this time it wasn’t very many at all,” he said. “We have drivers that are home every night with their families. That gives us a competitive edge over other companies that do long traveling trips ... When it’s difficult for us to try and find a driver with those types of career perks, it’s really tough for other (companies) to find drivers that send them over the road.”

Five years ago, Victoria College trained about 80 students in its truck driving program, and this past year about 50 students went through the program, said Mary Hardy, Victoria College Workforce and Continuing Education program coordinator.

Monica Lopez, a recruiter for a national freight hauling company, Melton Truck Lines, visited with Victoria College’s trucking students last week. The company has about 1,100 drivers and is short about 100, she said.

“We have 100 trucks that are sitting on the fence because we don’t have 100 additional drivers. Those trucks are not producing financially. They’re not producing for the company,” she said. “We move everything that has to do with construction. If we can’t get the supplies in the demand, there is no road construction, there is no job creation. That doesn’t keep the economy moving.”

Melton Truck Lines officials are combating the shortage by hiring inexperienced drivers and those who have had a Commercial Driver’s License previously but no longer do. They’re investing more in marketing and have a goal to partner with a college to start a driving program for their company.

Lopez said education about trades like truck driving needs to start in high school to help supply the demand.

“If the shortage continues to grow, we’re going to suffer economically,” she said. “The public is going to pay the price of it. We won’t be able to move goods, and the middle class will pay for it. Prices will rise. Truck drivers are the backbone of this economy.”

Truck drivers move 80 percent of freight in the U.S., Petty said, and most communities are dependent on trucking to have products delivered to them. But, most people don’t want to be truck drivers.

The economy is growing, unemployment is at or under 4 percent, most lines of work have more openings than available workers and with many businesses expanding production in anticipation of greater demand, business is booming for the U.S. freight market, Petty said.

Steel production in the U.S. is expected to grow 20 to 30 percent in the next two years, which will also increase the need for drivers, he said.

The cost of truck drivers is increasing, Petty said, because bidding wars are happening in tight markets to pay drivers more to keep them in their current job or lure them away to another one.

Stricter federal regulations are also turning drivers away, Petty said. For example, this year, the federal government began mandating electronic mileage logs instead of written ones.

With oil and gas production increasing, many local, regional and long-distance or over-the-road drivers are leaving their jobs to drive for the oil field, which pays more than $100,000 a year on average – double the average pay an over-the-road driver makes, he said. About 40,000 truck drivers are working in the Permian Basin, but a projected 3,000 to 4,000 extra drivers will be needed to meet production demands by next summer.

“The short-term solution – companies already know they have to pay drivers more, but they’re also paying more for services,” Petty said. “The cost of goods will go up. Transportation is an extremely important priority now for most American companies, especially manufacturers.”

Kathryn Cargo reports on business and agriculture for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at kcargo@vicad.com or 361-580-6328. Follow her on twitter @kathryncargo.

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Kathryn Cargo covers business and agriculture in the Crossroads. She enjoys reporting on industry trends and getting her shoes dirty out in the field.

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