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The ongoing labor shortage has exacerbated existing plow driver hiring problems, transportation officials said.
Around this time of year in Colorado, the state Department of Transportation would usually have about 100 vacant maintenance positions—people who perform the bread-and-butter work of fixing potholes, repairing guard rails and, in the winter, plowing snow. This year, as of last week, there were 200 open jobs.
“This is the most vacancies I’ve seen since I’ve been with CDOT,” said John Lorme, the department’s director of maintenance and operations. “Normally we’re around 10 or 11% at most. Right now, we’re hovering around 19%.”
It’s a nationwide problem, spread across at least a dozen states, with multiple contributing factors and no single, clear explanation. There’s the overall labor shortage, with more jobs available than workers to fill them. There are ongoing supply chain issues that, coupled with a historic shortage of truck drivers, have left a bevy of private sector jobs available for commercial driver’s license, or CDL, holders, many with benefits and signing bonuses that aren’t available in government roles.
It’s a perfect storm that’s exacerbated existing recruitment problems in certain areas, most notably cities and urban centers, where it’s always more difficult to fill seasonal transportation positions, officials said.
“We really started noticing by early to mid-October that our numbers for applications were down in some places by as much as 50%,” said Matt Bruning, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation. “I think a lot of that is emblematic of the fact that everyone is looking for CDL drivers. And that’s when we were like, ‘Shoot, this is going to be a tougher winter than we’ve had in recent years to try to hire these seasonal positions.’”
Each winter, Bruning said, the Ohio DOT supplements its full-time roster with 500 seasonal positions. Starting pay for those jobs is around $18.54, similar to full-time positions, and applicants are required to hold a commercial driver’s license in case they’re needed to plow snow. Recruiting is typically patchwork across the state and is always more difficult in the cities, he said.
“If I’m in south-central Ohio, where it’s relatively rural, a CDL holder may have relatively few job options, so ODOT is a pretty good one,” he said. “If I’m in Columbus or Cleveland or Cincinnati and I have a CDL, I’ve got a lot more options. Historically it’s been more of a challenge for us to hire in the bigger urban areas.”
But it's usually not this difficult, he added. The state is running between 20% and 30% behind on seasonal hiring this year, with most of the vacancies concentrated in those larger cities.
“It’s like, yes, it’s always a challenge to find people in Cleveland to plow snow, but this is just a little odd,” he said. “That’s the word I’m hearing.”
Stiff Competition For Drivers
Competition from private companies is a likely factor. Overall traffic in Ohio was down 5% in October compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to ODOT data, but truck traffic had increased by 10%. It’s not clear how many of those trucks were driven by Ohio residents, Bruning said, but it’s likely that both sectors are drawing from the same limited hiring pool.
“Having a CDL, and having a CDL that qualifies you to drive a snowplow, is already a small part of the population in Ohio,” he said. “If everybody’s looking for those people to work for them, the demand goes up and the supply is not changing.”
The problem isn’t uniform. Some agencies, like Colorado, expect to be short staffed all season, while others, including Iowa, are experiencing hiring lags but suspect staffing will even out. And some states have no issues at all.
“Indiana DOT is not facing a snowplow driver shortage this year,” Scott Manning, the department’s deputy chief of staff, said via email. “Our agency conducted an extensive marketing campaign from April through September to recruit drivers. … As a result, the agency is at the staff level needed to support operations this winter.”
In Iowa, 170 of 633 seasonal positions were filled as of last week, only slightly behind what the state would expect in a normal year, said Craig Bargfrede, winter operations administrator for the state’s Department of Transportation.
“We are running just a nick behind in our numbers, but nothing to the point where we’re really concerned,” he said.
Hiring for seasonal DOT employees in Midwestern states hinges on several factors, Bargfrede said, including the length of both the harvest and construction seasons, which are staffed by seasonal workers who often transition to transportation jobs in the winter. In a post-covid world, he said, vaccine mandates for state workers may also impact hiring.
“We don’t have that mandate here, and I think in a couple of instances, from conversations with people in other states, that’s been a factor,” he said. “But that’s just one of a lot of things. I think it’s the same issues that a lot of industries are facing. They’re having a tough time getting good-quality employees, whether it’s recruiting new ones or getting them back to work. We’re running a bit behind here, but I anticipate that we’ll keep making progress.”
Across the border in Michigan, hiring is also lagging, particularly in the southwestern part of the state, said Mark Geib, administrator of the Transportation Systems Management Operations division of the state Department of Transportation.
“The last I heard we’re doing pretty good in most of our areas except the southwest, where we’re looking to hire another 25 people or so,” he said. “We normally don’t have as much trouble filling positions. It’s been more difficult this year.”
Creative Recruitment Strategies
Some states have gotten creative to address recruiting shortages. Geib said Michigan decided to hire more full-time employees, hoping to entice applicants with more competitive pay and benefits. In Colorado, the DOT launched a two-year apprentice program that trains and helps high school graduates receive their class B commercial license in exchange for a full-time job. There’s also a trainee program, where eligible applicants without a commercial license are hired full time at a slightly reduced pay rate, then begin an internal training program.
“They have to get their permit within 30 days, and from there, within 90 days, we test them out for their CDL,” Lorme said. If they pass, students receive a pay bump, then continue through the rest of the training program and ultimately advance to a higher salary. Thirty trainees from the program’s first cohort will take on maintenance roles this winter, Lorme said.
Still, multiple states are likely headed for a short-staffed snowy season. But the snow will get plowed no matter what, Bruning said. In Ohio, officials have crafted media blitzes to prepare residents for the likely reality: The roads will be cleared, but it’ll probably take longer than normal.
“It’s not that we won't plow the snow, because we certainly will,” he said. “But instead of it taking maybe two hours...it might take three, or three and a half. It just depends what the situation is. We’ve been asking the public to be extra patient with us while we take extra time to get the job done.”
Even in a normal year, there are staffing contingencies in place, Geib said, so transportation officials are accustomed to moving employees around to plow areas that are hit hard by snowstorms that miss other portions of the state. It’s the rare statewide blizzard that could cause headaches, he said.
“We have some CDL employees that are available to us in-house that we can tap if needed that we don’t typically,” he said. “Snowstorms only hit certain areas. You only occasionally get the one that hits the whole state. But we’ll have enough people out there. We’re going to do whatever it takes, because it’s absolutely critical to the safety of the motoring public and to the economy in general.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.