Adam King spent months hunting for a job before landing at Witte Truck Driving School this fall.
Now that King, 23, of O'Fallon, Mo., has passed the state commercial driver's license test, he will spend the next five or six weeks driving a tractor-trailer under the watchful eye of a trainer before he ventures out on his own.
"I was unemployed after I got out of the Army for two years," said King, who drove trucks while in the military. "I put in hundreds of applications."
For the last three years, employment in the trucking industry has been stuck in low gear -- falling steadily to 1.26 million workers in July 2010, from 1.46 million in mid-2006. The recession choked off demand for goods and shipments, and, as a result, the demand for freight service has waned.
But industry officials say the call for qualified truck drivers is picking up despite slack employment figures in other fields. Tougher federal regulations and insurance companies have put a premium on experienced drivers with good driving records.
Prospective drivers must be at least 21, willing to spend extended time away from home and have a good work history.
"We just can't find qualified quality drivers to be able to put behind the wheel," said Jeff Bauza, president of MTC Truck Driver Training in St. Louis County.
Federal safety regulations that took effect last December have forced companies to look more closely at a driver's history of accidents and tickets, he said. Some companies also prefer one to two years of experience for insurance reasons, industry officials say.
Driver turnover, a key measure of a tight driver job market, is starting to pick back up, said Bob Costello, senior economist with the American Trucking Associations. Good drivers are able to move to other firms in larger numbers, he added.
"You have a truck that you need to put a driver in," Costello said. "You get a hundred applications, and a handful of people might meet the [company's] standards. Today, while that is an operational challenge because freight levels are flat, we're dealing with it."
Employment in the truck-transportation sector -- which includes drivers -- inched up slightly to 1.3 million workers in July, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
In recent months, trucking firms have been calling driver training programs such as the one at Crowder College in Neosho, Mo., in greater numbers, said Darrin Pfeifly, the college's director of transport training.
"In early 2010, when the economy was at its worst, those calls basically stopped," Pfeifly said. "We weren't seeing many recruiters. Now we have two or three a week. We are on a constant cycle of different recruiters."
On average, a trained entry-level driver can earn from $32,000 to $45,000 in the first year, industry officials say.
Some firms, such as Witte Bros. Exchange in Troy, have their own affiliated driver training programs. Witte has 160 drivers and specializes in refrigerated and frozen freight.
The driving school is selective in choosing its trainees, said Charla Whalen-Mueller, the company's director of marketing.
Students pay $650 of the total $3,650 fee upfront. If drivers remain with Witte Bros. for a year, they don't have to pay the $3,000 balance. If drivers stay with the company for two years, they are reimbursed the $650.
"Our school really serves as a pipeline for our driving pool," she said. "We really want for these guys to come in, go to the school, go out with a driving trainer, and there's 100 percent placement as long as they do their part."
Laura Rose, 51, of St. Louis, is three weeks into her training at the Witte school. A massage therapist, she hopes to team up with her boyfriend, a Witte Bros. driver.
During a break from her practice session in which she backed an 8 1/2 -foot-wide trailer into a 12-foot-wide space marked off by orange cones, Rose acknowledged that there is a lot more to driving a rig than she originally thought.
"There's so much that you have to know," she said. "You have to be alert. You have to be paying attention to every little thing. These cones could be a Mercedes. And these refrigerated trailers are like $100,000. You damage that, and you're in trouble."