Coming to America
On the surface it sounds like the proverbial no-brainer. The trucking industry has complained of a shortage of qualified commercial truck drivers for years, a shortage that in effect places a ceiling on carriers' capacity, since a truck without someone to drive it is no truck at all.

With unemployment nationwide hanging stubbornly at around 4 percent (creeping up to 4.2 percent in the second quarter of 2000), trucking companies are facing a seller's market. Drivers are more confident than ever of being able to find work elsewhere should things not work out at their current job.

So, if American citizens can't be relied on to drive trucks for this country's steadily growing economy - read, high freight demand - then why not tap other sources? Why not do what this country has done pretty well for a long time: Bring in people from other countries to do the work we don't seem to want to do - and have a taste of the American dream in the bargain? Why not bring in foreign nationals to drive this country's trucks? They'd make more money than they could in their home countries, and we'd have warm bodies to put in the cabs.

Well, the no-brainer has turned out to be a big-brainer, for a host of reasons that weren't apparent when the idea was just a gleam in the eye of a few trucking executives and industry officials. Consider recent developments:

  • One fast-talking entrepreneur with pie-in-the-sky dreams of foreign truckers galore was indicted on charges of visa fraud, alien smuggling and money laundering;
  • One company that thought the road was clear to bring in drivers from Barbados saw the Labor Department suddenly put the kibosh on its work certification application; and
  • The largest association representing trucking companies in this country (the American Trucking Associations) has all but thrown up its hands in the face of federal skepticism over whether there is in fact a documented driver shortage and - even if there is - whether truck driving is a "skilled profession" as defined by the Department of Labor.

A few false starts

In the mid-1990s a story began to circulate about an Australian entrepreneur named Peter Ruston who had contracted with truckload powerhouse J.B. Hunt Transport in Lowell, AR, and other Arkansas companies to provide them with Australian and New Zealander nationals to drive their trucks. Following a complaint filed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Labor Department began looking into allegations that Ruston's company, Worldmaster, had brought in the Australians under false pretenses and had misrepresented their purposes for being here on immigration forms.

By October 1999 Ruston and some of his colleagues had been indicted by a grand jury in Little Rock, AR, on multiple charges including telling drivers to claim on their visa applications that they were entering the country temporarily for business. One former driver brought in by Ruston told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette he was advised to say he was a "satellite navigation technician" on his application.

Many in the industry say Ruston's fall from grace has hindered the prospects of bringing in foreign labor to drive trucks in this country.

The Teamsters have consistently opposed the importation of foreign labor to drive trucks in the U.S., arguing that whatever driver shortage might exist is because of trucking deregulation in 1980, which, the union says, brought low wages and poor working conditions to the profession.

In that view they find some common cause with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which takes the position that if drivers were paid adequately, there wouldn't be so much turnover in the industry.

"We don't think there's a driver shortage at all," said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer. "That's a myth perpetuated by those who continue to seek lower incomes and longer work weeks for truckdrivers. Unless you address the core income and working conditions for drivers, we will always have this as an unattractive occupation. When the most successful carriers in the industry have 100 percent turnover, you have fundamental problems with the manner in which drivers are treated in the industry."

The Teamsters also balked last year when St. Louis-based Hogan Transports said it was hiring 75-100 people from Barbados to drive its trucks. A union spokesman said the company was not bringing in Barbadians for their special skills (the usual Labor Department litmus test) but because Hogan could pay them less.

Apparently, the Teamsters arguments carried some weight; shortly after IBT made its opposition known, the Hogan application was denied.

When is a shortage not a shortage?

Companies that want to employ foreigners as truck drivers generally have two legitimate options: the H1-B work visa and the H2-B visa. Both come with problems, at no extra charge.

The H1-B allows a foreigner to enter the U.S. to work in a skilled profession for a period of three years, renewable up to six. The Labor Department does not classify truck driving as a skilled profession.

The H2-B allows a foreigner to enter the U.S. as an unskilled worker for one year, renewable up to three years in certain cases, for example, a demonstrable labor shortage. The government, like OOIDA and others in the industry, does not believe such a shortage exists.

Even a 1997 Gallup Organization study commissioned by the trucking industry, "Empty Seats and Musical Chairs," found that the real problem is not an authentic shortage but "churning," or constant turnover. There are, in other words, enough truck drivers out there; they just don't tend to stay very long at one job.

Joel Dandrea, of American Trucking Associations' safety policy department, is not sanguine about the likelihood that the Labor Department will alter its longstanding policies on the importation of foreign truckdrivers. For this reason, it's not an issue at the top of ATA's advocacy priority list, he says.

"In visiting the issue over time with the Department of Labor, they don't believe there is a documented shortage of qualified workers to fill current positions, so until the definition of truck driving can be changed to skilled profession, it's a strong up-hill challenge," Dandrea says. "A major solution sometime soon? Nah. I'd rather be realistic than throw false hope out there."

He also says carriers' experiences with trying to bring in foreign nationals has been, at best, frustrating.

"Of those that have done it, most would agree that when it's all said and done it might not be worth the time and effort," Dandrea says.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Despite the long list of aborted attempts to bring in foreigners to drive trucks in this country, one law firm has enjoyed some modest success in this area. Richmond, VA,-based Mezzullo & McCandlish has managed to obtain labor certifications for what attorney Eliot Norman puts at "fewer than 25" employees. The key to these certifications, Norman says, is that the truckers be classified as driver supervisors, with training responsibilities.

Mezzullo & McCandlish has something to show for its efforts on the permanent certification front.

"We've had some rulings from the Labor Department where they recognize driver supervisors fall into the category [of skilled labor], with at least two years' experience so they can train them in all aspects [of the job]," Norman says. "That permits us to obtain permanent labor certifications on their behalf and eventually immigrant visas or green cards."

Norman declined to say who his trucking company clients are or where his foreign drivers came from, but he clearly thinks he's making progress convincing the federal government to take another look at the issue.

"We've gone to great lengths to enlighten them on a case-by-case basis," he says. "I'm optimistic."

So, who's right? Those who see bringing in drivers from other countries as an old idea from the past? Or people like Norman who believe that with a little determination the Labor Department will begin to see the light? Are carriers considering foreign drivers as a source of cheaper and less demanding labor? Or are the pressures of high demand and inadequate capacity simply driving them to find drivers wherever they can?

Long-time industry observers say it's all of this, and more. The complexities of the supply chain spider web make for generally low pay and unattractive working conditions. This country has always found a way to get immigrants to do the work we don't want to do, from building railroad track and cleaning toilets to ripping coal out of the earth and being nannies for our children.

This time, however, the government just isn't buying it. For the moment, anyway.

Paul Spillenger is a freelance writer living and working in Washington, DC.