Big-rig truck drivers have never been in greater demand. There are 40,000 positions available today, by some estimates--a sign, perhaps, of a coming surge in the economy. Often the transportation industry is a leading indicator for other businesses, from manufacturing to retail. So TIME senior writer DANIEL KADLEC sat down with Bill Zollars, chairman and CEO of Yellow Roadway, the nation's biggest trucking firm, to discuss driver shortages--and what kind of demand he is seeing across the country.
TIME What's with the driver shortage? Everybody talks about how tough the job market is. Yet here are thousands of decent-paying jobs going begging.
BILL ZOLLARS There are two parts to this story. Nonunion drivers are basically asked to leave their homes and not return for three weeks at a time. In contrast, at Teamsters-based companies like Yellow Roadway, the benefits are better, and because of how we've engineered our systems, our drivers are home virtually every night. It's a higher quality of life. So we're at the top of the food chain and have no trouble finding drivers. But for others, it's a serious issue. And the vast majority of those--the nonunion companies--employ several million drivers. Union companies employ about 100,000.
TIME What's the rest of your industry doing to get the drivers it needs?
ZOLLARS There's been continuous upward pressure on wages and benefits. Our average driver makes $70,000 a year and has good benefits. Wages are going up 5% a year for union drivers and twice that fast on the nonunion side.
TIME That must hurt profits.
ZOLLARS First of all, rail service generally has deteriorated, and as demand has picked up for all transportation services, it has forced even more onto the roads. So capacity is getting tight. Fuel costs have gone up, and so have insurance costs. But the law of supply and demand works pretty well. We're able to charge more. Where possible, our customers are passing through those costs. So the consumer ends up paying more.
TIME When trucking firms can't hire truckers quickly enough, it's usually a sign that business is brisk. Yet some people are wringing their hands today over the state of the economy.
ZOLLARS The situation with the election, high oil prices, terror and other uncertainties tends to make people nervous. So that might explain the weak stock market and why long-term interest rates have been falling. But from the data we look at, the economy continues to expand pretty well. Our retail and manufacturing business is strong. We're moving a lot of stuff ahead of the holidays. Our retailer customers include Wal-Mart and Home Depot, and they continue to show expanded shipping patterns and plenty of inventory building. They expect a good holiday season.
TIME So why is job growth so anemic?
ZOLLARS Most companies wait until the last possible moment to hire full-time employees. My research shows that they are about at the end of their string and not only will have to start hiring but will be making capital investments as well.
TIME Could it be that haulers are simply moving imported goods paid for by credit card, and the U.S. economy really isn't benefiting?