More U.S. drivers could find themselves stuck on snowy highways or have their travel delayed this winter due to a shortage of snowplow drivers — a reality that could hit home Friday as winter storms start dumping snow from the Intermountain West to the Upper Great Lakes.
States from Washington to Pennsylvania, including Montana and Wyoming in the Rocky Mountains, are having trouble finding enough people willing to take the comparatively low-paying jobs that require a Commercial Driver’s License and often entail working at odd hours in dangerous conditions.
“We want the traveling public to understand why it could take longer this season to clear highways during winter storms,” said Jon Swartz, the maintenance administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation, which is short about 90 drivers. “Knowing this helps motorists to plan ahead and adjust or even delay travel plans.”
The labor shortage and lingering concerns about the pandemic have left employers scrambling to find enough school bus drivers, waiters, cooks and even teachers. The shortage comes as the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits dropped last week to the lowest level in 52 years and some are seeking a better work-life balance.
Several states are either already feeling the crunch or could be soon: A snowstorm hit northern Utah on Thursday night while heavy snow was forecast for higher elevations in Colorado on Friday. Over a half a foot (15 centimeters) could drop in parts of Nebraska and Iowa. Parts of Nevada and New Mexico also expect winter storms. A major storm is expected to hit Northern California starting Sunday, bringing in the first significant rainfall this month to the drought-parched area.
State transportation departments say there are several reasons for a lack of snowplow drivers: the record low unemployment rate, an aging workforce and an increased demand for diesel mechanics and CDL drivers in other industries. Private companies can also be more nimble — raising salaries and offering bonuses to drivers — than state agencies, which usually have to get legislative approval to change salaries.
“Everyone’s sort of competing for the same group of workers and private companies can often offer higher salaries than the state government,” said Barbara LaBoe, spokesperson for Washington state’s Department of Transportation.
Along with the competitive market, LaBoe said Washington also lost 151 winter operations workers who did not want to comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The American Trucking Associations estimates there will be a record shortage of just over 80,000 drivers this year, and that doesn’t include the shortfall in drivers for school buses, public transportation or snowplows.
The ATA says the shortage has many roots, including many drivers nearing retirement age, the pandemic causing some to leave the industry and training schools churning out fewer new drivers in 2020.
Some states are willing to hire snowplow drivers and pay for their CDL training, but it’s not likely those hires will be ready to work this winter, officials said.
Some snowplow drivers work year-round in highway maintenance jobs, while seasonal workers are hired to fill the additional shifts in the winter.
The shortage is leading states to make plans to shift mechanics and other full-time employees who have Commercial Driver’s Licenses into plows, which can cause problems if a plow needs maintenance work and the mechanic is out driving.
In Washington, LaBoe said some roads and mountain passes will be closed longer than usual during and after significant storms and some roads may not receive the same level of service.
Brief or isolated storms won’t cause problems in most states, in part because departments can move drivers and equipment around based on the weather forecast.
“If we have a series of storms over several days or if it hits the whole state at once, (the shortage) is going to become more evident because we don’t have as deep a bench,” LaBoe said.
Washington is still short about 150 seasonal and full-time workers, but things have improved since October when it was short 300 workers.