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Big on Rigs : State's Ample Supply of Truckers Bucks U.S. Trend

CALIFORNIA | HEARD ON THE BEAT / WORKPLACE

May 09, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From coast to coast, trucking companies are blasting their horns about an apparently dire shortage of people willing to work as long-haul drivers. But in California, as so often is the case, things are more than a little different.

Reflecting the state's high unemployment and its big, eager-to-work immigrant labor force, the pool of candidates in California for truck driver jobs is comparatively ample. What's more, the industry's sky-high turnover--one national survey suggests that the average long-haul driver lasts only one year in the job--appears to be lower here.

For J.B. Hunt Transport, one of the nation's largest trucking companies and the operator of a big terminal in South Gate, recruiting and retaining long-haul drivers remains a challenge in California. But Stephen L. Palmer, executive vice president for the Arkansas- based company, said, "It's easier out there than at the other terminal locations we have."

Industry officials say the traditional source of new drivers--men from rural America looking to get off the farm--is drying up. But in California, Latino immigrants and other foreign-born workers are filling the gap.

"You have an influx of new labor out there, and it's labor that sees driving a truck as an advancement," said Laurie Baulig, a vice president in charge of labor issues for the American Trucking Assns., a Washington-based trade group commonly known as the ATA.

Surveys show that the chronic turnover among long-haul drivers stems largely from the long stretches away from home, which commonly last from one to three weeks. Other gripes include regulations such as mandatory drug testing, disrespectful treatment by dispatchers and, in some cases, the pay. A 1995 survey by the ATA put the average annual income of truck drivers--a grouping including local- and intermediate-haul drivers along with long-haul drivers--at $33,580.

Meanwhile, the ATA says that growth in the trucking industry fueled by an expanding economy and companies that rely on just-in-time production techniques are creating at least 300,000 new jobs for drivers every year.

Many drivers start out as long-haul drivers and then look for local or intermediate- haul jobs so they can stay closer to home. The result, nationally, is that employers find they have a much healthier supply of candidates for those jobs.

And in comparatively driver-rich Southern California, employers find themselves with even more workers to choose from. "When we advertise for drivers, we get an enormous number of over-the-road drivers" looking for local delivery work, said Frank Eyraud Jr., who hires drivers for Newport Beach-based Roadway Construction Co.

In fact, many industry observers say that on the Los Angeles-Long Beach waterfront, served mainly by immigrant independent truckers, the ongoing labor unrest is the result of a glut of local drivers.

One port trucking company, Meiko Freight Service, over the last two weeks cut its force of drivers from 45 to 36 "so the people who are here can earn more dollars," said Bob Kamppila, the company's operations manager in Long Beach. On the waterfront, he said, "you've got a lot of excess drivers."

To combat its national shortage of long-haul drivers, J.B. Hunt in February raised wages an average of 33%. The firm estimates that the move will boost its average long-haul driver's annual pay from a little under $40,000 to just over $50,000.

For longtime truckers such as O.B. and Lois Cooper, a husband-and-wife driving team based at the South Gate terminal, the lure of the job is the freedom.

"You don't have to wait for someone else to say it's OK to take a cigarette or coffee break," said O.B. Cooper, who has been a trucker since the early 1970s and has teamed with his wife, taking turns behind the wheel, for the last 14 years.

The Coopers, in their early 60s, say they earned $56,000 working nine months last year. Still, Lois Cooper said, being away for two weeks at a time sometimes proves tough. "You don't have a home life. . . . You lose all track of your neighbors and their lives."

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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