Have CDL, can travel

Michael Kennedy, a long-haul trucker who works for Medelez Trucking in Hermiston, checks his tires before heading to San Diego with a load of frozen french fries.

If dozens of new, qualified truck drivers popped into Umatilla County tomorrow, Bryan Medelez argued they would have no problem finding jobs.

Good paying jobs.

Medelez is the director of operations at his family’s business, Medelez Inc. and BJK Transport, Hermiston, and they rely on lots of truck drivers.

“We know seed potato is right around the corner, so we’ll be using 150 truck drivers,” he said.

That would fill all the semis the company owns. Come the fall harvest, he said, the ranks of the business swell to 400, almost all of those are truck drivers. The company will contact the hundreds of drivers it keeps in a database and hire dozens of subcontractors to handle all the loads.

“There’s certain times of the year that you better have all your trucks filled up because there’s money to be made out there,” Medelez said.

And that’s the issue. According to the American Trucking Associations, the nation is short more than 50,000 truck drivers. The American Transportation Research Institute pegged the driver shortage as the top trucking industry concern for 2017 and 2018.

Bud Stephens teaches truck driving. He said he plans to reopen his driving school this spring in Hermiston because the need it there. He also said the shortage problem goes back for some time.

“We will never fill all the trucks that need divers,” he said, “and that’s been going for at least 20 years, especially for long-haul drivers.”

That is due to the lifestyle.

“Imagine,” he said, “camping out the rest of your life, fighting everyday for parking … not seeing your family, staying on the road two to four weeks at time.”

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Have CDL, can travel

Michael Kennedy, a long-haul trucker who works for Medelez Trucking in Hermiston, drives his rig Wednesday in Hermiston. Later, he headed to San Diego with a load of frozen french fries.

The list goes on, he said, but little of living on the road is attractive to most people. He also said changes in laws have made it easier to disqualify drivers while making it harder to be a driver. Washington, for example, Stephens said, requires a minimum of 160 hours of driving time to get a commercial license. And the cost of the training can run a few thousand dollars.

Oregon does not require a minimum number of hours to enter the field, but new drivers still have to go to school and pay plenty of fees. The knowledge test is $10, the driving test is $70, the certificate of test completion is $40, the license is $75 if you already have an Oregon driver’s license and $135 if you don’t.

Medelez said he sees truckers aging out of the workforce with no one to replace them as another major factor. According to the transportation institute’s report, 28 percent of truck drivers are 55 and older, a situation putting “significant pressure on the industry to increase the available pool of qualified truck drivers.”

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Have CDL, can travel

Michael Kennedy, a long-haul trucker who works for Medelez Trucking in Hermiston, drives his rig Wednesday in Hermiston. Later, he headed to San Diego with a load of frozen french fries.

One way to do that is provide better pay and benefits.

Medelez said his family’s business offers a heath insurance package, a 401K for retirement and an annual savings program in which the company matches 50 percent of an employee’s contributions. He said that’s a popular item for some extra Christmas cash.

And rookie drivers can make $60,000 a year, Medelez said, while Walmart pays its drivers more than $80,000. Drivers at Medelez and BJK can earn that, too, he said, “But you’ve got to hustle. It doesn’t come easy.”

Stephens said the competition is giving drivers freedom to pick where they want to work. Drivers are willing to jump from one company to the next if they see a better deal, he said, and companies need drivers so badly they overlook someone who may have left their last employer in the lurch.

Medelez said all the competition compounds the shortage. Large companies, small companies with just a handful of semis, even bus companies are looking for folks with the golden combination of a CDL and clean driving record. That’s why Medelez and BJK keep on top of who they have available to handle big rigs.

“I think we manage it well,” Medelez said. “We’re here all the time.”

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