The long-haul trucking industry is looking for more than a few good men -- and women.
Despite the weak economy and a national unemployment rate hovering just under 10 percent, trucking companies report a shortage of long-haul drivers -- a problem federal labor officials and trucking officials say will grow worse over the next 10 years.
"We expect we will have a sizable driver shortage in the less popular driving jobs," said Clayton Boyce with the American Trucking Association. "The least desirable jobs are the ones where you are driving a truck for weeks or more and never getting home."
The implications for consumers are clear.
"If the jobs go unfilled or if there is a need to raise wages in order to attract workers into those occupations, I think either thing would have a tendency to raise the cost of goods," said Eric Thompson, professor of economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Tim Aschoff deals with the problem every day. As a vice president for Crete Carrier Corp., a Nebraska-based trucking company that operates 5,500 trucks across 48 states, his responsibilities include driver training and recruiting. In some years, Aschoff said, the company may hire 300 to 350 drivers a year. "We are always looking to hire," he said.
Aschoff also acknowledged the effect this shortage could have on consumers. "It really comes down to simple economics -- supply and demand," Aschoff said. "If we're not able to get enough drivers to fill our trucks that we have out there that handle our customer's goods, we're going to have to pay the drivers more to be able to do that. As we pay the drivers more, that cost will have to be transferred throughout the food chain."
Supermarket chain Hy-Vee operates 228 stores in eight states in the upper-Midwest. Ruth Comer, spokesperson for Hy-Vee, said the chain could be forced to increase prices because of the trucking shortage.
"All of our costs ultimately affect prices," Comer said.
"When we have an increased cost in transportation, we try to make adjustments wherever possible in our operating costs to keep costs down for our consumers. But there are times when those costs do show up in our products."
Driver Shortages Plague Trucking Industry
To minimize the impact of driver shortages, Hy-Vee relies partially on its own drivers for some transport operations. "We try to grow our own work force and plan ahead for those occasions," Comer said.
There may be another hidden cost to consumers as well. Thompson said if companies cannot fill these positions more goods may have to be packed into fewer rigs. That could mean that laws regulating the weight trucks can carry on roads would have to be changed to allow heavier loads. For the taxpayer, that could translate into more tax dollars being spent to maintain highways.
Maine and Vermont are already experimenting with increased weight allowances. A 2010 fiscal spending bill will allow the states to run a one-year trial program where heavier six-axle trucks can travel on interstate highways inside their borders. Current law bans trucks over 80,000 pounds. The new restrictions would allow trucks weighing 90,000 and 100,000 pounds to travel within Vermont and Maine, respectively.
A typical starting salary for new drivers is 33 cents per mile; more experienced drivers can earn up to 39 cents a mile. The American Trucking Association says new drivers expect to earn about $37,000 a year, and many companies – including Crete Carrier – provide a full range of benefits, including health insurance and a 401K program.
Even so, two factors play a big role in the shortage of long-haul drivers: the training and, more importantly, the lifestyle changes that accompany long-haul driving.
Don Walters, 62, of Amazonia, Mo., has been driving cross-country for 20 years. His wife Laurie, 53, joined him seven years ago when their children left home.
They're on the road six days a week now.
"We get home, we have enough time to do laundry, mow the yard, do a couple things around the house and then we're back out here doing it again," Don said. And because most drivers are paid by the mile, the couple tries to keep the truck on the road as much as possible.
"When I'm driving, he's sleeping, and when he's driving, I'm sleeping," Laurie said. "It's a major life change."
Tough Lifestyle for Truckers
So, why do they do it? Don said it is a profession that has been good to his family.
"We're lucky, we've got a job. We can pay our bills," Don said. "There is no threat of losing our house or anything like a lot of people have right now in other professions."
Despite the job stability, it is not a lifestyle change that a lot of people are willing to make -- or stick with. Aschoff said there is a very high rate of turnover for long-haul drivers because of the lifestyle. "We are constantly hiring to replace that turnover," Aschoff said. "We always want to make sure that the capacity we have and the number of trucks we have we keep full so that we are able to service our customers."
But it's not easy to fill that turnover, especially given the training necessary for the required license.
Prospective new drivers pay for their training, which costs at least $1,000 and can take three months.
"Being a truck driver isn't something that's just somebody off the street can do," said Aschoff. "It does require schooling; it requires a certain amount of training and to understand how to effectively and safely operate the equipment that you're assigned to.
There are a number of regulations that apply to our industry, right down to the drivers themselves."
The company recruits some of its drivers from a professional driving program at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Neb. "We're going to teach them how to use a clutch to get the truck to move; we teach them how to negotiate corners, backing, every element of the driving," said Dave Grant, chairman of the Southeast program.
And part of the training, Grant added, is to prepare drivers for "the life."
"I don't try to gloss over what this job is," he said. But Jerry Foster, 35, a student in Grant's program, said he's prepared. "Right now I have no family, and I figure I can get myself a nice nest egg and settle down later," he said. "I like the guaranteed job from what I hear from the industry --- and the money, the money as well."
Crete Carrier hopes to find other students like Foster. Aschoff said in order to fill the shortage, the company may expand the number of students they take from programs like the one at Southeast. "We look constantly at ways we can improve our hiring process," Aschoff said. "We do get very good quality students out of those programs that become good, quality drivers for us."ABCNews.com contributor Brandi Kruse is a member of the ABC News on Campus program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.