Trucking bankruptcies ease shortage of drivers

Bob Lingyak's job is a lot easier these days.

As head of recruiting at trucking company Gypsum Express, for years Lingyak had to take what he could get when it came to long-haul drivers amid a shortage of workers qualified to handle the big rigs and willing to spend weeks on the road.

But, as the cost of diesel fuel soars and the economy slows, hundreds of small to mid-sized trucking outfits are folding – leaving legions of trained drivers looking for work.

“It's turned around quite a bit,” Lingyak said. “It used to be the drivers who could pick and choose. Now we can pick and choose.”

Trucking companies have long lamented what they say has been a chronic shortage of long-haul – or over-the-road – drivers. A 2005 analysis by Global Insight estimated that by 2014 the industry will fall about 111,000 drivers short of the 1.7 million expected to be needed to keep the nation's long-haul freight moving.

But in the short term, the labor crunch appears to have eased.

Soaring diesel prices – which nationally are averaging $4.69 a gallon compared with $2.79 last year – and increased price competition among trucking companies are running thousands of the nation's 18-wheelers off the road.

These days it costs upward of $1,100 to fill up a big rig with a pair of tanks that hold 250 gallons. That's up from about $700 last year.

Truckers have protested rising fuel prices at the U.S. Capitol and elsewhere, urging Congress to end large oil company subsidies and release fuel from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, among other things.

Although truckers can recoup much of the higher fuel costs through surcharges adjusted as diesel prices rise and fall, sharply rising prices can cause serious cash flow problems for some, said Donald Broughton, transportation industry analyst at the investment firm Avondale Partners.

During the first three months of this year, 935 trucking companies filed for bankruptcy, according to Avondale Partners research. That's the highest failure rate seen since the economic slump of the early 2000s, Broughton said.

Broughton estimates that more than 42,000 long-haul trucks – 2 percent of the nation's fleet of 2 million – were idled during the quarter.