Recruiting and retaining drivers is shaping up to be the biggest challenge facing trucking in 2005, according to industry observers, leading many carriers scrambling to address driver career issues.

"In a nutshell, demand for drivers is going to be very strong next year," Bob Costello, chief economist for American Trucking Assns. (ATA), told Fleet Owner. "The way we're looking at it, demand for trucking services should grow modestly next year, but supply of truck capacity is going to remain very tight - and that in turn is going to keep demand for drivers very strong."

"The number one business issue we'll face next year is lack of capacity. But even though that lack of capacity has improved our industry's pricing position -- giving it the profits it needs for capital investments in new trucks, trailers, and other equipment -- it will be of no use unless we find drivers," Joe Harrison, president of the American Moving & Storage Assn., explained to Fleet Owner. "The chronic shortage of drivers is getting more difficult: it's getting harder to recruit and retain drivers in our segment of the [trucking] market."

Ronny Betz, VP-Recruiting for truckload carrier Celadon Group, said that the three main driver issues fleets must address next year are fairly simple - pay, home time, and benefits - but that they must be addressed in a more "flexible" manner than in the past.

"Home time seems to be becoming the biggest issue right now," he said in an interview with Fleet Owner. "Virtually all of them love being a truck driver - it's being away from home two to three weeks at a time, then getting only a day or two with their families before they have to head out again, that's the problem. So the issue going forward is how we create more predictable pay and home time for them - that's the direction the industry is moving in."

Betz said Celadon is experimenting with several plans to give its drivers more family-friendly options. For starters, the company's drivers now get one paid week off for every 30,000 miles they drive - in addition to the day off they earn for every seven days they spend on duty.

"That 30,000 mile/week off plan is giving our drivers up to five paid weeks off per year right off the bat: a benefit most employees don't get until they've been with a company for 10 years or more," Betz noted. "That's just one example of how we as an industry need to think differently."

He added that carriers must increasingly give drivers - both new and experienced - a more visible "career path" to follow in order to keep them for the long term.

"We have to start thinking in terms of career paths - laying out for them the driving options they can access in order to match where they are in life, whether they are single, married, have young kids, or kids going to college so they need to make more money," Betz said. "I think there's starting to be enough money out there to satisfy the pay needs of drivers; now we just have to work on creating more flexible career paths so they don't have to constantly switch carriers to get what they need for their life at that moment."