If Tom Huesman had the manpower, his trucking business out of the port of Baltimore would spike as much as 25 percent — no questions about it.
"If I had a minimum of 10 more drivers, they would be working every day without missing a heartbeat," said Huesman, president of Baltimore-based Terminal Transportation Services.
For Wayne Gaumer, president of Lightning Transportation in Hagerstown, which serves Baltimore's port and others in nearby states, the manpower shortage is even more restrictive.
"We could probably start another company on the amount of business we're turning away," Gaumer said at a recent Federal Maritime Commission meeting in Baltimore on regional port issues.
Despite a regional unemployment rate around 7 percent, a persistent driver shortage has hobbled the local industry's efforts to rebuild since the recession, which thinned trucker ranks as cargo volumes diminished, Huesman, Gaumer and others in the industry say.
In Baltimore— where about 95 percent of cargo is handled by truck — the problem looms as a major hurdle, even as port officials say they expect years of growth as competing ports struggle with congestion.
"We're trying to stay ahead of the curve," said Dave Thomas, director of port operations. "We think we have a good product. We think we have a good market, so we expect to see that growth."
The reasons for the shortage aren't clear. Trucker pay nationwide, adjusted for inflation, remains lower than it was a decade ago as new federal emissions and driver safety rules increased costs and reduced productivity.
Huesman said driver pay has been "pretty depressed across the country" since the recession for a variety of factors, from the new federal standards increasing costs to congestion at port facilities reducing the amount of cargo a single driver can move in a day. He said he's looked at increasing pay per move, but options are limited. More pay for drivers translates into higher costs to his customers, he said, at a time when inflation already is eroding margins.
"We have tried to run ads with all kinds of incentives, financial incentives, to bring employees on, and we get very little response," Huesman said. "It's actually amazing sometimes."
When he does get a bite, it's often from an established and working trucker looking to jump from one outfit to another to take advantage of Huesman's signing and safe-driver bonuses — which doesn't help, he said.
"If I solicit a driver in the same market, we really haven't improved anything," he said. "We've just moved a driver from one company to another."
The local driver shortage reflects a larger national problem for the trucking industry. Bob Costello, an economist for the American Trucking Associations, said the outlook is concerning.
"I've estimated that the driver shortage is roughly 35,000 nationwide," he said.
A new trucker can earn $43,000 a year, pay that can rise quickly to $50,000 with good benefits, according to the trucking associations. That's not bad for a job that doesn't require a college degree, but few people are flocking to the work, known for long hours and time away from families.
The reasons, Costello said, vary widely, from criminal and poor driving records disqualifying applicants to federal regulations that require interstate freight drivers to be 21 years old.
"We lose out on a lot of people who have graduated high school but aren't going to college and aren't going to the military," he said.
Huesman said economic barriers also prevent people from entering the already depleted field.
"Back when the economy really hit the skids, back in 2007, 2008," cargo volumes and trucking work dropped off so quickly that drivers "couldn't make a living, so a lot of them just packed up and left," he said.
Then came new environmental standards in 2010 that hiked the cost of maintaining a truck for owner-operators.
Fuel costs climbed as well, Huesman said, and Maryland's reduction in registration fees to compensate drivers didn't make enough of a difference.
Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said toll increases at the Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels and on the Key Bridge also made making a living as a local trucker more difficult.
Tolls for five-axle vehicles at all three locations doubled, going from $12 in 2009 to $18 in 2011 to $24 in 2013, he said. For port drivers — who often are paid per delivery — to make money, they have to make multiple turns through the port, which means they pay tolls coming in and heading out repeatedly throughout their workday.
"For an independent contractor to make a good living, he needs to make five to six turns a day to cover these expenses and then obviously to have an income stream," Campion said. "Break that over a year, that's a $25,000 toll bill."
On top of costs, truck drivers who work port containers face added frustrations as well, many in the industry said.
In Baltimore, a big problem is the chassis system — pools of the trailer beds on top of which containers are placed.
Trucking operators say the system — controlled by a mix of leasing agents and shipping lines — is mired by inconsistencies. At times there aren't enough chassis. When there are enough, many are in poor condition — leaving truckers vulnerable to roadside violations.
Even worse is when truckers who slog through the long process of picking up a container at the port are stopped by an inspection before leaving a terminal and told the chassis they were provided isn't suitable for road travel.
"We give drivers equipment that is substandard and then after they have spent time waiting in line, after they have gone and gotten their box, their container, they go to leave the port and are told, 'This chassis is substandard. Go back and get in line,' and they start all over again," Campion said. "It really leads to great frustration among the port trucking community and its drivers."
That sort of frustration only adds to the difficulty in finding new drivers and retaining existing ones, he and others said.
The issue of trucker shortages was brought up in two recent summits in Baltimore: The Federal Maritime Commission hosted a summit on Mid-Atlantic and Northeast port congestion, and the Opportunity Collaborative held a meeting on the barriers workers face in entering the transportation sector.
Attendees at both events talked about ways to address the hurdles, but offered few solutions. But efforts are underway to stimulate change.
Elisabeth Sachs, program director of the state's 11/2-year-old EARN grant program for establishing new training opportunities in underserved industries, said the issue is on her radar.
Established in the 2013 legislative session, the program sent out its first grants in May. They included $149,000 for a project with Cecil Community College named the Susquehanna Transportation and Logistics Partnership, and $256,000 for a project with Montgomery College and Hagerstown Community College named Mid-Maryland Transportation & Logistics.
Both programs offer training for people interested in obtaining their commercial driver's license, but aren't specifically geared toward the port, Sachs said.
When the EARN program was first envisioned in Annapolis, legislators believed the biggest demand would come from health care, construction, manufacturing and private security. But when the program put out requests for grant proposals, Sachs said the transportation sector responded with the most interest.
"We're learning a lot about the needs of this industry across the state. We probably haven't funded the perfect match in the Baltimore region yet, but we're open to it," Sachs said. "It all just seems to be the perfect storm."