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DETROIT (Reuters) - If you think now is a good time to try your hand as a U.S. truck driver with steady pay and a life on the open road, think again.
The U.S. recession has turned a serious shortage of drivers into a surplus virtually overnight. Disappearing credit has hurt production and shipments of goods of all kinds all at once, idling thousands of trucks.
"When I began trucking two years ago you couldn't throw a dime up in the air without hitting a trucking job," said Brian Short, 26. "Those days are gone."
To an extent, Short is lucky to have a job. But only up to a point, as this is a business where you make your own luck.
Short has no criminal record and a good driving record. That enabled him to switch a few months ago from a large trucker where he was unhappy to Con-way Truckload -- a long-haul unit of truck and logistics outfit Con-way Inc.
"I've talked to drivers recently who have only driven 1,000 miles in a week," said Short, who spends two months at a time on the road away from his wife and young son in Tampa, Florida. "Last month I drove 12,000 miles, so I'm sticking with Con-way."
Short has 170,000 career miles under his belt -- roughly two thirds of the distance to the moon. Miles matter the most in this business, as truckers are paid by the mile.
The recent economic boom years were a "buyer's market" for good drivers, with some trucking companies seeing driver turnover as high as 130 percent a year. They could pick and choose their jobs and might be offered bonuses of $5,000 just to sign on for work. All that has changed with the recession.
Last autumn's holiday shopping season was slow. Small trucking firms were hurt as merchandise shipments dried up.
"Right around Thanksgiving when the downturn took hold and there was an uptick in bankruptcies, we started seeing a significant change in driver behavior," said Herb Schmidt, president of Joplin, Missouri-based Con-way Truckload.
"All of a sudden, the better drivers began moving to stronger companies," he said.
The surplus of drivers has provided bigger trucking companies some relief in the downturn, as they can cherry pick the best drivers and save money. Con-way Truckload's monthly help-wanted advertising bill has been cut more than 50 percent to $250,000.
But perhaps it is encouraging that analysts are cautious.
"When the recovery comes, the same demographic issues will turn the surplus back into a shortage very quickly," said Jason Seidl, an analyst at investment bank Dahlman Rose. "Truck carriers will need to be ready for that."
According to a Global Insight study for the American Trucking Association, or ATA, in May 2005 -- at the height of the last boom -- the industry was short 20,000 drivers.
If demographic trends continued -- an aging populace with fewer white males aged 35 to 54, the current mainstay of the industry -- and U.S. long-term economic growth hits targets, the driver shortage could hit 111,000 by 2014, the study said.
Drivers must have a commercial license. Companies seek people without a criminal record and who are reliable. But because truckers spend months on the road, often away from family, for about $35,000 a year, not everyone wants the job.
Drivers who make a career of it tend to keep moving and not stay with the same company. And for some, being a long-haul trucker is a calling.
But the economy of late has not matched expectations and falling truck freight volumes -- down 10.8 percent in January according to the ATA -- have left many truckers jobless.
"We have seen a 40 percent increase in traffic since the holidays," said ATA vice president Elisabeth Barna of queries to the group's recruitment website www.gettrucking.com.
"Many of those hits appear to be people looking for different career options," she said.
According to 2006 Bureau of Labor Statistics, truckers earn $36,000 a year on average. But experienced truckers can make up to $60,000, an attractive prospect for unemployed workers.
A truck driving license also no longer guarantees a job.
"We are still able to place students in jobs," said Robert McClanahan, executive director of the National Association of Publicly Funded Truck Driving Schools.
"But truck companies are becoming more selective, they are only taking the cream of the crop. If an applicant has a flaw on their record, we tell them upfront it will be hard to place them," he said.
Companies like Con-way Truckload are using the surplus to weed out problematic or unreliable drivers.
"We've gotten a little more aggressive about polishing our workforce," said Schmidt. "There has never been a more critical time to take care of our customers."
Driver turnover at his company has fallen to around 50 percent from 90 percent in the boom. Average annual turnover in the industry is now around 60 percent.
"The driver surplus has been good for us in some respects, but I'm not naive enough to believe that we won't be battling a shortage again when the recovery comes," Schmidt said.