Faced with a worsening shortage of long-haul truck drivers, freight carriers are turning to the RV generation, aggressively recruiting older couples to climb behind the wheel.
The Wall Street Journal reported the trend has become so prevalent that this fall, the American Trucking Association plans a billboard and television ad blitz to lure older drivers.
“We just thought if Ma and Pa can drive the Winnebago, maybe they can drive the 18-wheeler,” says Tim Lynch, a senior vice president at the trade group.
Since 2000, the number of service and truck drivers 55 or older has surged 19%, to about 616,000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage jump is quadruple that of truck drivers overall.
The hiring binge has dramatically increased the number of husband-and-wife driving teams, and truck makers are trying to make their big rigs feel more like rolling homes away from home. Paccar Inc.’s Kenworth Truck Co. unit introduced a new model in March with leather beds and heated seats. Volvo Trucks North America, part of AB Volvo, has begun production of trucks with a full-size bed in the cab comfortable for couples.
Johnson’s Corner, a truck stop halfway between Denver and Cheyenne, Wyo., that claims it has been open 24 hours a day since 1952, has begun ordering outdoor magazines and Western novels for older drivers who don’t like the standard fare of hot-rod and girlie magazines, said Chauncey Taylor, the truck stop’s owner. A new whirlpool and massage chairs are available for “those who have weary bones,” he says.
Women drivers at Prime Inc. can get their hair and nails done at a salon that opened two years ago in a 40,000-square-foot facility that the Springfield, Mo., refrigerated-truck carrier runs in its hometown for drivers and other employees. “Even if they are away from home, we want to give them the same amenities everyone else would have,” says Don Lacy, the company’s safety director.
Terri Lynch, 58, who began driving a truck with her husband, Joey, in 1992, now has a cellphone jammed with the numbers of wives who take turns behind the wheel with their spouses. She makes weekly calls to new husband-and-wife driver teams, peppering them with advice on how to make marriage coexist with life on the road. “You just have to learn to work with each other,” Lynch tells other truck-driving wives.
Older drivers don’t face any extra requirements because of their age. Most carriers send recruits to commercial driving school. Drivers must pass a physical exam required by the federal government, but there is no mandatory retirement age as there is for commercial pilots, who under Federal Aviation Administration rules must retire at 60. On the road, among all drivers, those 55 to 69 have the lowest fatality rates for adults, according to a 2004 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.
Truck companies with baby boomer drivers insist their safety record is at least as good as that of younger drivers. Older drivers are especially cautious, says Steve Vogel, president of Vogel Safety & Risk Inc., a safety consulting firm in Bolingbrook, Ill. Riding shotgun with a spouse also can make drivers less likely to speed, tailgate or go berserk at road-hogging cars.
At larger carriers, older husband-and-wife drivers often get health insurance, a 401(k) plan, and two or three days off every two weeks. Annual starting pay is roughly $66,000 to $90,000 per couple, enough to entice many middle-aged spouses approaching a financially precarious retirement.