BRATTLEBORO — While the COVID-19 pandemic might have stalled the hospitality and other service jobs, the need for more drivers with a commercial driver's license (CDL) has shifted into high gear.
According to a survey from the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. (BDCC) and the Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS), many local businesses, municipalities, and nonprofits that employ drivers with CDLs expect to fully replace their current workforce within five years.
Most of this turnover is due to expected retirements.
Yet despite the upheaval in the job market created by the pandemic, the need for CDL-qualified drivers is also immediate.
Todd West, owner of Northeast Driver Training in Rockingham, a private CDL training school, said that he has heard from local employers who collectively need to fill 40 open positions.
The Vermont Department of Labor featured the commercial driving occupation at a recent virtual job fair, whose participating employers included The MOOver, the Vermont Agency of Transportation, Travel Kuz, and Adventure Limousine.
The survey also highlighted challenges the pandemic has placed on the transportation industry, such as older workers deciding to retire.
Also, early in the pandemic, the state Department of Motor Vehicles halted its public-facing services, preventing recent CDL students from finishing their license tests.
Measuring the need
The survey is part of the BDCC and SeVEDS Hiring Needs Assessment (HNA) initiative, designed to track immediate workforce needs in the Windham County region.
The organization is also looking to identify jobs where workers are in high demand with few barriers for entry, that offer opportunities for growth and above-average wages.
Less than a third of those who took part in the HNA said that the pandemic had caused them downsize their workforce. While some employers were struggling to find workers prior to the pandemic, a handful of employers had also reported that the public health situation has caused their businesses to scale back.
Cindy Delgatto, regional manager of the Vermont Department of Labor's Brattleboro and Springfield offices, noted in an October press event hosted by the BDCC that transportation issues affect multiple parts of the economy - for example, public transportation or the delivery of goods.
In that sense, she said, the impact of the lack of CDL drivers goes beyond the health of the local economy and also affects the quality of people's lives.
In a press release, the BDCC attributed the “bottleneck” created by the DMV's shutdown to increased competition among employers for licensed CDL drivers and to difficulties for nonprofits and municipalities in delivering services.
According to the BDCC, it submitted its HNA survey to 40 regional public- and private-sector employers. The 18 that responded currently employ 76 workers in roles that require commercial licensing.
Those respondents have an immediate need for 11 workers and expect to hire 78 over the next five years.
The BDCC estimates that the actual demand will be two to three times higher. The organization bases this estimate on what it knows about the staffing needs among the businesses that didn't respond.
According to the report, even during the pandemic, many employers are seeking drivers, a need they anticipate will remain high over the next five years.
For these positions, most employers seek workers with high school diplomas or GEDs. Potential drivers can receive training through their employers, a private training school, or the state.
Several posted help wanted ads listing hourly wages ranging from $18 to $28, wages that tend to exceed compensation offered to workers in the service sector.
The HNA is part of the BDCC's Workforce Center of Excellence and SeVEDS and uses data collected from local employers to advise workforce training and educational programs.
Over the last year, BDCC and SeVEDS have released three HNA reports, focusing on bookkeeping and administration, manufacturing and production, and the differing needs among potential employers.
Southeast Vermont Transit operates the Moover transit service in Windham and southern Windsor counties. It also provides bus service as well as door-to-door van rides for elderly and disabled clients, as well as volunteer-based transportation to get them to medical appointments.
“There are several types of CDL drivers - over-the-road truckers, construction, public transit, etc.,” said CEO Randy Schoonmaker. “For public transit, we are not so much looking for drivers as we are looking for people. We can teach the driving skills and help with the testing. But we want people who like to help others and make a difference in their lives, and the CDL training comes secondary.”
West noted that, by contrast, Northeast Driver Training has trained multiple drivers who prefer the more solitary CDL work associated with hauling and delivering products. He has also seen an increase in the number of women taking his classes.
“Women tend to take to the training” more so than men, West said - because, he theorizes, women tend to leave their egos at home.
A cloudy jobs report
The pandemic has thrown sand into economy's gear box, triggering layoffs across many job sectors. By the summer, the regional unemployment rate had risen from just under 3 percent to as high as 15 percent.
Pandemic aside, however, Vermont had workforce issues prior to 2020. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these issues.
As the BDCC noted in its August HNA, “Ongoing demographic challenges had, until recently, produced a consistent and long-term decline in Vermont's workforce.”
In Windham County, the number of people in the workforce had declined since 2009. This trend resulted in a 2019 labor force roughly the size it was in 1993, wrote the BDCC.
“At the same time, despite unemployment just above 2 percent in 2019,” according to the HNA. “People continued to need more, and better, opportunities to improve wages and household incomes.”
A concern of the BDCC and other organizations that watch workforce trends is that the number of available workers will fall so low that employers will need to scale back their businesses.
Some business owners who attended a 2019 workforce summit hosted by the state's 12 Regional Development Corporations reported that they had already done just that.
For example, manufacturing companies that used to operate three shifts had cut back to one or two. A nonprofit service provider had a long wait-list of clients because it lacks the staff to deliver services. A local food distributor couldn't find enough drivers for deliveries.
Too much scaling back in response to a shrinking workforce and the economy could shrink as well, resulting in a “permanent elimination of jobs,” the BDCC cautioned in the HNA.
“As many of these organizations provide essential services, the implications of this shortage go well beyond the health of the economy,” wrote the BDCC.
Given the workforce challenges, BDCC highlighted obtaining a CDL license as an opportunity for more young people to enter the “workforce pipeline” straight from high school.