Why this working-class job is paying signing bonuses

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Signing bonuses are typically the hallmark of competitive, highly paid fields where employers struggle to lure top talent. But there’s one working-class job that’s so stretched for workers that some hiring managers are paying out $5,000 signing bonuses: trucking.

“It’s been a challenge to get good, qualified drivers,” Quality Carriers president Randy Strutz told Bloomberg News. “I expect we’ll probably have to spend more money to find applicants.”

As the labor market gets tighter, some parts of the economy are stumbling on a problem that was virtually unknown since the recession: finding workers. In 2008, the trucking industry didn’t have an issue with finding workers because volumes had plunged with the economic crisis. But by 2014, the industry was facing a shortage of 38,000 workers as the economy picked up, according to a report last year form the American Trucking Associations.

Some other skilled trades are also dealing with or projected to face shortages of workers, ranging from rail transportation to installation and repair workers, according to a study from the Conference Board published earlier this year

Mr. Rooter Plumbing of San Antonio, part of a plumbing franchise, “has had to raise wages to attract and keep employees,” said owner Carla Mulder. She said her company pays a 30 percent commission for weekends and on-call service. “We typically use a pay scale based on the license the plumber holds, but we find we are commonly at the top end of that scale just to get the employee to come on-board.”

There’s one issue that many of these blue collar fields have in common: they are traditionally jobs held by men. But male participation in the labor market has declined during the past several decades. About 98 percent of men between the ages of 25 to 54 were in the labor force in 1954, but that’s declined to just 88 percent today, according to a White House report.

The decline has posed a puzzle for economists and policy makers, with some pointing to everything from America’s shift away from manufacturing jobs to a lifestyle choice by some men. That’s probably not much of a comfort to trucking companies and others that typically rely on skilled male labor, however.

The shortage of truckers is due to an aging workforce as well as the industry’s struggle to attract women, who comprise just 5.8 percent of all truck drivers, the ATA report noted. Mr. Rooter Plumbing said that its parent company offers six scholarships to women entering a number of typically male-dominated fields, such as plumbing and electrical work.

“It’s such an opportune time for women to start considering careers in untraditional job segments,” said Glenn Gallas, vice president of operations for Mr. Rooter Plumbing. He added that there’s currently a lack of qualified trade workers across a number of traditionally blue-collar careers. That’s putting pressure on employers to boost wages to compete for talent.

“Most fleets instituted large pay increases in the summer of 2014 with many repeating the increases again in 2015,” the ATA said. “Sign-on bonuses are used throughout the industry as well. Expect driver pay to continue rising as long as the driver shortage continues. Good benefits are also part of a total compensation package in the industry.”

Labor trends will be watched carefully Friday, when the monthly jobs report will be released. Employers are expected to have added 172,000 workers in September, while the jobless rate should remain at 4.9 percent, Bloomberg said.