GREAT FALLS — Like many products and businesses over the past year, the trucking industry has been hit hard with pandemic shortages. Those shortages, though, started well before Covid-caused concerns. According to the American Trucking Association, by the end of 2018, the essential industry was short 60,000 drivers.
"As long as I keep moving, I keep working, people keep getting their Nikes, Nutter Butters and their Starbucks frappuccinos in a can, which I like…coffee,” said K&K truck driver Kenneth Brooks.
Brooks has spent more than two decades of his life on the road as a truck driver. "I learn something new every day in this truck,” explained Brooks.
For 17 of those years, he's been employed by K&K Trucking based in Great Falls. Brooks is one of 23 drivers on staff for the long-haul trucking company that specializes in refrigerated products.
"It’s challenging, but never boring. Something different every day," explained K&K Trucking co-owner Dave Bertelsen. Bertelsen and his wife Vicki took over the company from Vicki's father in 1999. "We really make an effort to be…still we are a small company. That’s part of why a lot of drivers like working with us because they feel, we know them by their name, it’s not a number,” Bertelsen explained.
While Covid concerns put the brakes on many industries, trucking's been essential.
“I’ve hauled Pepsi, Coke, truck bed liners, produce, oranges, apples, melons, grain. I’ve had all kinds of things. Uh, Covid…toilet paper, papers towels,” Brooks said.
But a pandemic problem of companies struggling to hire workers is nothing new for the trucking industry.
“Finding drivers has always been an issue, qualified drivers. There’s a lot of marginal and unqualified drivers out there,” Bertelsen explained.
Bertelesen said part of the issue is that insurance rates, which dictate how they operate, have skyrocketed in recent years, making it harder to do business.
He's also seen the average driver age increase. “Not a lot of young people in trucks and not a lot of women, and I don’t know why,” said Brooks.
To help combat this, K&K Trucking is offering a $2,000 bonus to current drivers who recruit new ones. “I think our industry needs to do a better job or promoting truck driving as a viable profession and a well-compensated profession,” Bertelsen said.
It's a tough job with a uniquely challenging schedule. When we interviewed Brooks, he was getting ready to take off for a 2,400 mile (one-way) trip to Fairbanks, Alaska. He said he is usually on the road for work anywhere for 10 days to three weeks at a time.
Bertelesen explained a change in perception of the industry hasn't helped either. "The lack of respect out on the road. Forty years ago a truck driver was a noble profession and it’s been rundown over the last 20 years. And I think that’s our biggest challenge is making sure all of our drivers know they are very important. Especially through the pandemic, you know nurses all the frontline people got a lot of creds, not so much the truck drivers who are still delivering the goods we all needed,” Bertlesen explained.
Extended interview with Brooks:
One of the requirements for drivers is a CDL, or a commercial driver’s license. Helena College offers a CDL program that includes 90 hours of theory, such as basic and advanced operations and safety procedures. Student drivers also spend 30 hours behind the wheel and come out of the program with their CDL learner’s permit. The program is typically offered in the fall and spring with up to 12 students in each class.
"Commercially licensed drivers are really valuable employees. They hold professional license along with tools, knowledge and skill set that's recognized nationally, so it becomes very valuable to both employers and employees. Employers do understand the value of an employee that holds that credential and there's a lot of job opportunities that require that advance skill,” said Ryan Loomis, Helena College Director of Community Education and the Small Business Center.
Through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Grant, or GEAR grant, Helena College is now partnering with the Montana Department of Justice and Motor Vehicle Division to be a public third party CDL examiner. This means people who have passed a written examine and have a CDL learner’s permit can take the practical driving test with a Helena College examiner. Loomis says they’re hopeful this will help alleviate some of the backlog in the licensing system.
“Our office at Helena College is really excited to assist the state with a dedicated examiner to help license people throughout our region. We currently only have one person that comes up once or twice a week from the Bozeman area, so it is nice to have that examiner dedicated to our Helena area,” Loomis explained.
Click here to visit the "Tomorrow's Truckers" website, sponsored by the American Truckers Association.