Times are tough for motor carriers and their drivers this time of year. Not only is trucking in a post-holiday slowdown, but an economic downturn that has led to talk of a recession has made it even harder to find the freight needed to keep trucks moving and drivers busy.

According to the American Trucking Assns., driver turnover in the first quarter of 2007 was 127%, the highest rate since the end of 2005. Truckload carriers also ended the first quarter last year with 1.8% fewer drivers than they had at the top of that year. The beginning of this year may not be any better, as the outlook has been poor for several months.

Herb Schmidt, president of Con-way Truckload, said that this first quarter should be more difficult than most years. “Normally December through the first quarter is the slowest part of the year,” he told FleetOwner. “Also, it’s been a very slow year for our industry, and analysts aren’t sure we’ve hit the bottom yet. Restocking begins in the early second quarter, and when that second quarter bump happens this year, it won’t be as big as usual.”

However, Schmidt said that Con-way Truckload—the former Contract Freightliners, Inc. before it was acquired by Con-way in August-- has at least overcome the first-quarter problems for its drivers.

Schmidt said that Con-way drivers are able to thrive in the first quarter because the company has many loads to draw on. This includes meeting the linehaul needs of its sister company, Con-way Freight, as well as internal freight gained from Menlo Worldwide, a fully owned Con-way non-asset based logistics company.

Menlo announced in August a $1.6 billion deal to be the prime contractor for the Defense Transportation Coordination Initiative (DTCI) of the U.S. Department of Defense, which Schmidt said will result in $800 million in truck traffic over the next two years for the company.

Schmidt said that Con-way Truckload has also made it more beneficial for drivers by increasing haul length, adding a penny per mile driven and acquiring larger, more comfortable trucks.

“When the economy slows, it makes drivers easier to find and keep,” Schmidt added. “But many of our competitors still have trucks lined up against a fence. We’ve been able to keep our drivers as busy as they were last year.”