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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE - Cody Merryman, 22, of Dallas, poses in one of P.A.M. Transports' trucks Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, while taking part in the company's training program in Tontitown. The company has been working to attract millennials like Merryman to the industry. - Photo by Andy Shupe

Cody Merryman told his father he'd never be a truck driver.

The 22-year-old laughed at the ill-fated declaration as he looked around the driving range at P.A.M. Transportation Services Inc. in Tontitown last week. Merryman isn't a certified driver yet but is on his way to become a third-generation trucker, following his father and grandfather.

"I never thought I'd do anything like this," said Merryman, a Dallas native who is beginning a second career after recently leaving a job in the auto industry. "Every day my dad calls me and says, 'How you doing? You like it?' It's like he thinks I'm going to one day be like, 'This is the stupidest thing ever.'"

Merryman has no plans of leaving, though, and his gravitation to the family business makes him a precious commodity in an industry where a driver shortage is one of the biggest concerns. He's a millennial -- the term used for the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2000 -- who has decided to make a career of sitting behind the wheel of a truck.

The industry is dealing with a driver shortage reaching 35,000 nationwide, according to data compiled by the American Trucking Associations last year. The number could grow to 240,000 by 2024 if the issue isn't addressed.

There are several factors behind the shortages -- the amount of time spent away from home, health concerns and age restrictions. All of it has played a role in the trucking industry's struggle to recruit new drivers and replenish an aging workforce. A recent study by the American Transportation Research Institute shows 55.5 percent of drivers are 45 or older, while 20.5 percent are younger than 35.

The facts aren't new to Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association. The shortage and lack of younger drivers have been concerns throughout her years in trucking.

"We employed significantly more drivers in the 80s and 90s," Newton said. "If you imagine, at that time, we attracted people who were somewhere between the ages of 25 and 40. Then you fast-forward 20 years, we still employ those same people. That does not set up for the future of the industry."

Newton said it's imperative to examine innovative ways to recruit millennial drivers.

"All the wrong things we're saying and doing now, how can we say those differently?" Newton said. "We're not going to change the occupation of truck driving. You're still going to have to get in the truck; you're still going to have to pick up freight in Little Rock and carry it to Colorado Springs. But there are things about it that are enchanting."

Last week, the Trucking Association listened to a presentation by Max Farrell, founder of the startup company Create Reason. His mission is to help companies find ways to solve pressing issues in innovative ways. Farrell, who is a millennial, said he became aware of the trucking's need for new drivers after consulting with an associate who used to work in the industry.

"Trucking is vital to our economy and a lot of people, my peers included, have forgotten that," Farrell said.

The Trucking Association said 1 in 11 employed workers are in trucking industry.

"It comes back to treating people like humans," Farrell said. "Pay is part of that. Wellness is a big thing. Flexibility will continue to be a big thing. And just engaging with the driver. Having relationships with them. There's often times where drivers don't know who they work for."

Newton was even more blunt, saying the industry hasn't done a good job of marketing itself through the changing times. One example she used was the promotion of a 401K in recruitment, which isn't enticing to a college graduate more concerned about paying off student loans or other debts.

"Instead of offering free 401K, how about debt reduction," Newton said. "Debt repayments. Can I pay 6 percent against my student loan as opposed to against my retirement. Things that young people are valuing are different than the things we're offering. It's not necessarily more. It's just different. We need to repackage what we have in a way that appeals to people that we have not previously considered."

Clark Gray, vice president of driver resources and compliance at P.A.M., said there are other issues trucking companies face in recruiting and hiring. One of the biggest is the growing desire of younger workers to stay closer to home, which is a challenging dilemma in an industry sending drivers around the nation. But Clark said there is an added emphasis being placed on building dedicated and regional runs that offer more time at home than traditional long-haul freight.

Age restrictions are another challenge, limiting a company's ability to recruit and attract potential drivers at younger ages.

"Unfortunately with drivers not being able to enter this field until they're 21 plus years old, the industry loses out on a lot of people that are potential candidates," Gray said. "So in essence, what you're doing is you're getting people that are entering into second careers or making major changes by switching professions, and I think that is one of the key contributors to the hurdles we face."

Gray believes P.A.M. has enjoyed some success in attracting millennials to the firm, with 44 percent of the company's 2,400 drivers falling in the demographic. Like most companies, P.A.M. has emphasized social media and web-based platforms as valuable recruiting tools. P.A.M. recently started a campaign that highlights their drivers, sharing their stories in the industry.

"We've seen some success," Gray said. "But there's always room for improvement."

Merryman knows he's a rare breed. He tried to persuade a friend to join him in the training program. Merryman said his friend initially agreed, but eventually changed his mind.

"He was just like, 'No, that's not for me,'" Merryman said. "I wish more younger people would do it."

Business on 02/18/2015

Print Headline: Trucking industry woos millennials as driver corps ages

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