By Douglas Sams
BUFORD - Throw out that threadbare stereotype of the beer-bellied, tobacco-chewing, good ol' boy trucker.
Meet 34-year-old William Orlando, a new generation long-hauler-in-training who needs the trucking industry as much as it needs him.
Orlando is an entrepreneur, with a failed auto detail business in Leesburg, Va., under his belt and the ambition to come up with a better plan this time around.
Trucking companies want career-changers like Orlando because of a driver shortage that could rise to 111,000 by 2014, according to an industry study.
Not even two weeks into his training, Orlando feels something his old profession failed to offer - stability. A company already offered him a job, but just in case he reconsiders they call him every night to make sure he knows how much they want him.
"There's much more demand here," the Flowery Branch resident said amid the rumble of big rigs in the Buford training yard of Daly's Truck Driving School. "I looked at how easy it was going to be to get a job."
A driver shortage has been an ongoing problem since the early '90s, but changing industry demographics in response to the shortfall is a more recent trend. Orlando is just one example of a new breed of trucker coming through the driving school.
Over the past several years, owner and trucking industry veteran Jerry Daly has signed up more college graduates, career-changers, entrepreneurs and women.
One recent Daly's graduate was a 20-year hospital administrator from New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina forced him to change professions, he sought a driver's steady paycheck.
"These are not the typical 'Bubbas' and pot-bellied truckers that reflect the common stereotype," Daly said. "These are people attracted to the independence in this industry. They're sick and tired of having someone look over their shoulder. Others might be a bit more sharp-minded. They are small-business men and women who want to become owner-operators. They break out on their own, lease their services in the industry, and they can make a lot of money."
The industry needs thousands of long-haul drivers - and it's cranking up incentives to lure them.
A 2005 American Trucking Association study said 539,000 drivers, or 54,000 a year, will be needed over the next decade. Two major reasons for the shortage are high turnover and a projected 220,000 new truckers needed to replace older drivers as they retire.
Those seeking the Spartan trucker life of grueling cross-country road trips spent in isolation can still find it. But companies are doing what they can to attract a wider range of potential drivers wary of the industry's reputation for harsh demands.
They have raised entry-level pay to nearly $40,000 in some cases. They pay for driving school. They are rolling out better health care benefits, 401K plans and ride-along programs that would have been largely unheard of years ago.
"They'll let a spouse ride on a cross-country trip a few times a year, or maybe let your child go with you," Daly said. "It's all about what the companies can do to make the job better."
To entrepreneurs like Orlando, the trucking industry offers more than stability. It offers a real chance to make good money. Orlando knows if he plays his cards right, he can make $100,000 as an owner-operator.
"I'm a hands-on kind of person," he said, "and this business is all about tangible results."