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President of truck driving school says driver shortage is causing supply chain issues

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Ships, trucks, highways - all key components in knitting together this complicated supply chain. And, of course, workers - more specifically, truck drivers. And a shortage of drivers is one of the many reasons for the pileup at shipping ports, a pileup that did not surprise Bruce Busada one bit as the pandemic dragged on and e-commerce exploded. He's president of the Diesel Drivers Academy in Shreveport, La., where he says that companies large and small are begging him for freshly trained drivers.

BRUCE BUSADA: They need drivers right now. I mean, I had a food distributor come in and talk to us - that I know the people that own it - and talk to us. They said, they need 11 drivers right now today. You know, in a small city, a small business needing 11 drivers today, that's just - where they had no problems with drivers over the past, you know, 40 plus years.

CORNISH: So what happens in those moments? Do you laugh? Do you have 11 drivers? Do you sigh? (Laughter) Like, what goes through your mind?

BUSADA: I cry with them because, I mean, yeah, I have students. I mean, our enrollments have increased. But they haven't increased to meet the demand. I mean, you know, it's going to take some time to catch up with the demand right now.

CORNISH: Give us a sense of scale. I mean, just how many people are in your academy at any given moment?

BUSADA: Just in Shreveport, my campus in Shreveport, we have 180 students. You know, I could double that number and easily place them with trucking companies easily. But I don't think the state's ready for that type volume, and I don't think we're ready to double, you know, for that type volume. I mean, it's just - it's hard to gear up for that doubling. But I can tell you, the 180 is a higher number than we were doing this time last year, a lot higher.

CORNISH: Help us understand the training pipeline. What are all the parts of this process, from schools to permits to driver's licenses? Like, kind of how did things get affected by the pandemic?

BUSADA: They have to get a DOT physical and a drug screen. There's a national test that they give for Department of Transportation that the medical examiners have to give, and you have to be a registered medical examiner to do it. And then a permit - going into the state motor vehicles to get their permit license. Those offices were closed. Even in our state, we were having to do it by appointment. So that was delaying the permit testing. And then once they complete the school, then you had to do the skills part of the testing. But even after they were tested for that and passed it, sometimes they couldn't get into the DMV office to actually get their license and may have to wait a couple of days.

CORNISH: You said you've got people coming to your school begging for drivers. What does that mean in terms of the pay right now and working conditions, right? In the past, people - drivers would complain that because they were contractors, they weren't necessarily employees with benefits and other protections, that they didn't really have the bargaining power that they would like. What's the situation now?

BUSADA: Well, the pay has gone up tremendously. I know even our - some companies are even paying students bonuses to sign on and come to work with them.

CORNISH: Can you give us any numbers? I have no idea what truck drivers make right now.

BUSADA: I would say the average is probably 60,000 coming out of school the first year on up to, I'd say, 85,000 the first year.

CORNISH: How big a difference is that from the past, like, kind of pre-pandemic times?

BUSADA: Probably 40- to, you know, 55,000. It's gone up quite a bit. And the benefits are always been there. They've had the benefits with the bigger companies. Even the local companies, they have benefits, 401(k)s and insurance and all that health insurance.

CORNISH: You've also talked about kind of misconceptions out there that actually make it harder to draw younger people to the business. I don't know if that's the same right now, but as people are coming to the academy, has it been hard to recruit? If so, why?

BUSADA: It's not only younger ones; it's also females, too. The industry has had a hard time recruiting females and younger people. And I think it's just the image. We've not done a good job of - you know, it's not "Smokey The Bandit" anymore. The trucks are really high-tech. They have a lot of safety features. And also, I think the trucking companies have realized that they need to get people home more often. So they've reverted back to more local-type jobs and more regional jobs, where they may only be out a day or two, a night or two or three nights. But they get them home every weekend or get them home at least every week where they were keeping them out two or three weeks at a time.

CORNISH: Bruce Busada, president of the Diesel Drivers Academy in Shreveport, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPERPOZE'S "TIME TRAVEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.