Coming to America
Bring me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be truckdrivers

by Paul Spillenger

There aren't many of them yet, but the plan is for their numbers to swell to the point where 2,000 of them will arrive every year. You will see them driving big rigs down the interstates, swilling strong coffee at the truckstop and waiting for state police to finish inspecting their trucks at the weigh station. If all goes according to plan, some believe these people will eventually serve as a potent weapon in the on-going war against the plague of driverless trucks that has beset the industry for years now.

They do not live in the continental United States, nor are they foreign nationals brought in on a work visa. Who, then, are these mystery men and women?

They are Puerto Rican residents who have been trained by a Columbus, OH-based company that has found a resourceful way to supply trained drivers to a driver-starved industry - and give the Puerto Rican economy a shot in the arm at the same time.

Estimates vary, but many put the average turnover rate for long-haul truckdrivers at between 90 and 100 percent. And as varied as the estimates are, there are also a variety of opinions on what causes the turnover.

"The problem isn't a shortage of drivers; the problem is working conditions for drivers and driver turnover," says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. "The same people have been saying we have a driver shortage for more than a decade, and it's simply not true. We have a turnover problem because drivers are under-compensated and overworked."

On March 21, World-Wide Solutions Inc. delivered its first wave of drivers to Memphis, TN-based truckload giant M.S. Carriers, which has promised to provide on-the-job training and employment for the first 1,000 drivers WWS brings in. Larry LeGrand, the company's co-founder and chief executive, says the relationship between WWS and M.S. Carriers is intended to be cross-pollinating.

"The first group of drivers is important," he says, "because it represents an initial true test of our program. But they are also important because we want them to have the best possible training so that they can return to Puerto Rico and become trainers for The Trucking Institute."

The Trucking Institute is a truck-driving school in Puerto Rico established by WWS to train the residents who are - and will be - driving on the U.S. mainland. The school supplies graduates to a company called Quality Driver Source, which then leases them to trucking companies in the U.S. For now, M.S. Carriers is the sole client, but WWS envisions developing a number of customers in the U.S. and Canada as The Trucking Institute churns out drivers.

More than 900 Puerto Rican residents have already responded to the school's recruiting efforts. The drivers are not your garden variety raw recruits. Each of the first 20, for example, is bilingual and has undergone physical, drug and personality tests, as well as background checks, the company says. And they will be required to re-certify their commercial driver's licenses before they are allowed out on the road.

And, says LeGrand, they are not the fly-by-night type of employee, either. They're not just looking for a job, but a career in the industry.

"Historically, truckdrivers are attracted to the job because of the independent lifestyle and the image it offers," he says. "We want to recruit people who look at truckdriving as a lifelong career choice with opportunities for advancement and self-improvement, people who will bring some level of stability to the job and help reduce turnover in the industry."

And help is desperately needed, by all accounts. While some - among them the U.S. Department of Labor - may dispute the existence of a bona fide driver shortage, no one denies that U.S. trucking companies are having more trouble than ever keeping warm bodies in their cabs. And World-Wide Solutions says it may not have the answer, but it has one answer, though not all agree with the solution.

OOIDA's Spencer says projects like these actually hurt, rather than help.

"This may be of benefit to M.S. Carriers, but it's a detriment to the entire industry, whether you're talking about people from other countries or Puerto Rico or whether you are soliciting and recruiting younger aged drivers," he says. "It maintains the status quo of inadequate income - it further erodes the current inadequate compensation and overwork situation most drivers have to deal with."

"The same people have been saying we have a driver shortage for more than a decade, and it's simply not true. We have a turnover problem because drivers are under-compensated and overworked."

- Todd Spencer, OOIDA

A veteran's perspective

Lars Holfve has heard about the World-Wide Solutions project to bring in Puerto Rican residents as truck drivers. And he's skeptical.

Holfve is a semi-retired trucker who came to this country from his native Stockholm, Sweden, in 1965, right out of college, where he earned a degree in business. After a few years in the data processing and construction fields, he went to work for North American Van Lines as an owner-operator. From the very beginning Holfve saw foreign nationals enter the truck driving profession, some to stay, and some to leave after less than a year. He says it's not a job for the faint of heart.

"The thing about truckdriving is dealing with the unknown and the randomness of things," Holfve says. "You have to be able to react to various situations no matter what. There is no set pattern."

Holfve, who "lived in a truck for 11 years," says one of the difficulties novice drivers - U.S. citizens or not - face is the sheer terror of the work.

"The most common thing that makes people not make it as drivers is when you sit behind the wheel and you get out in traffic the first time, you are scared to death," he says. "The ones who can't deal with that fear - and that's the majority - quit."

But the Cape Canaveral, FL, resident says that foreigners coming to this country to drive trucks have a whole other set of problems to deal with. And he would include in that category the Puerto Rican residents who are being brought over by WWS.

"The biggest stumbling block for anyone coming from the outside is communication skills, language skills," he says. "You spend a lot of time on the telephone, and with satellite communications it will be more written. That's why drivers from other countries, will have a very slim success rate unless they were born in an English-speaking country. Unless they can communicate very well in English, they will quickly become marginal people, period."

Holfve tells a story about a foreign driver in his graduating class at truck driving school. Holfve and the driver went to Grand Rapids, MI, and picked up a load of steel furniture. Three days later no one had heard from the trucker.

"Finally, he calls the company, he's mad as hell," Holfve recalls. "He's in Raleigh, NC, and he's saying he's looked everywhere and the company he's supposed to deliver to isn't there. They say, 'Look at the bill of lading.' He says, 'I did, it's Raleigh, NC.' They say, 'No, look at the bill of lading.' 'Oh,' he says, 'Rahway, NJ.' It happens all the time. You know how many Springfields there are in the U.S.?"

Holfve also anticipates that the drivers WWS brings in for M.S. Carriers in Memphis, TN, will face some serious cultural differences.

As someone who has had to fight more than one battle in a language that is not his native tongue, Holfve knows how frustrating it can be when a driver just can't communicate clearly or understand what's being said.

"A lot of trucking is waiting, traffic jams, weather, this and that and you'll call a shipper and say it's snowing and you're going to shut down, he's going to get mad. If you don't have the skills to explain that to the shipper, trucking's not going to work for you," he says.

WWS says it's making intensive English and cultural training part of its school curriculum, but Holfve is dubious. He thinks that to really prepare graduates for the realities of driving in this country, the program will have to be a long one. And he doesn't think anyone's prepared to foot the bill for that kind of education. When he started driving, North American was bringing in 60-70 foreigners every week, Holfve says, and about a third managed to get through the two-week training program; out of that third, "98 percent would be gone within the year," he recalls.

"They'll bring 2,000 in every year and send 1,950 of them back," Holfve says of the WWS initiative. "I don't think it's gonna fly."

Paul Spillenger is a freelance writer living and working in Washington, DC.