With their kids out of the house, empty-nesters Dan and Cristy Dornbusch cruise U.S. highways with an array of domestic comforts — TV, microwave convection oven, running water — in their vehicle.
They’re not just savoring the scenery: The Dornbusch duo operates a Freightliner M2 truck lugging loads of metal casting parts as a driving team for closely held Try Hours Inc.
Try Hours is part of a growing wave of truckers customizing their cabs to blunt a driver shortage that consultant FTR Associates Inc. sees approaching 400,000 by the end of 2017. These companies are investing in entertainment systems, ceiling fans and refrigerator/freezers to ease the strain on employees who are on the road for three or four weeks at a time.
“You have just about everything you need, so you can actually stay out longer between trips home,” said Dornbusch, 52, of Wilmington, Ohio. “We call it professional camping.”
They work for a company that’s updating its 20 trucks with more amenities as a recruiting and retention tool. “It’s all about a better experience to keep the drivers,” said Kenneth Lemley, who manages the fleet at Maumee, Ohio-based Try Hours.
Closely held Western Express recently agreed to outfit 1,600 of its 2,400 trucks with satellite television from technology provider EpicVue, and plans to extend that equipment eventually to all its vehicles.
“This is one of the things we’re doing to retain drivers,” Chief Operating Officer Robert Stachura said. “The drivers have been telling us they wanted this in the trucks.”
Finding drivers is a central challenge for U.S. trucking companies. The industry will need to make almost 1 million new hires in the next decade to keep pace with growing cargo demand and a graying workforce, the American Trucking Associations estimated in 2014. Drivers in many fleets average more than 50 years old.
“The sleeper amenities are how fleet owners fight to get drivers,” said Linda Caffee, 54, who logs about 145,000 miles (230,000 kilometers) a year with her husband. “This is basically our home.”
They drive for Landstar System Inc., whose business model is built on driver-owned vehicles. The cab of their custom-built Freightliner boasts a sink, microwave, refrigerator/freezer, ceiling fan and a bed that folds into a dining table. She used to have to cook meals in a crockpot on the floor with a bungee cord holding down the lid.
Companies including U.S. Xpress Enterprises Inc., Con-way Inc. and Celadon Group Inc. raised pay last year to help woo new drivers. But truck owners can’t always afford higher labor expenses, according to the ATA. A heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver, on average, made $41,930 in 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Truck fleets need to give their drivers nicer amenities to attract and retain those drivers,” said President Brian Callan of specialized sleeper-cab maker Bolt Custom Trucks & Manufacturing. “That leads to what we do for a living.”
A custom cab typically costs about $45,000 — a price that can double when a shower and toilet are included, Callan said.
The rub for truckers: Showers and satellite TV can only go so far in ensuring that their tractors stay on the highway.
“If companies want more drivers they need to pay more,” said Pete Swan, a professor of logistics and operations management at Penn State Harrisburg, an arm of Pennsylvania State University. “But firms are reluctant to do this.”
Try Hours has customized sleeper cabs on most of its trucks — extras that can boost the cost of a new truck by about $50,000 to $185,000, said Lemley, the fleet manager. He is now adding entertainment systems, because it’s more costly for Try Hours to have to idle a truck for a month for lack of a driver.
“It’s a very good investment to keep a driver happy,” Lemley said.
Image Credit: Linda and Bob Caffee’s custom-built truck cab. Source: Linda Caffee via Bloomberg