As Maine cleans up from another early winter storm, the Department of Transportation is trying to scrape up more than snow.

For years, the department has struggled to find enough workers who are willing to toil through long days and nights clearing snow from the state’s public roads.

Now the labor shortage appears to be worsening as competition and an aging population are combining to shrink the pool of potential plow drivers.

The dearth of workers is more dramatic than it looks, based on the 46 highway jobs the department is now hiring for, said Dale Doughty, the department’s director of operations and maintenance.

Since 38 of its workers won’t be certified to drive a plow truck by the end of the winter, the transportation department is actually down more than 10 percent from the 700 full-time drivers it would like to have so it could staff each of its plow trucks with two drivers.

And the situation would be more dire if the state wasn’t using 40 drivers from the international staffing firm First Vehicle Services, under a renewed 2017 contract.

“Without contractors, we’d be down 120 drivers,” Doughty said. “The problem has grown, it just sounds like it is better because we backfilled with contractors.”

Now the department is scrambling to find people farther west and north, which typically have reliable labor pools compared with the tough market in southern Maine, where the department has frequently had a hard time finding new recruits willing to stay with the department more than a year. But an aging workforce, hyper-competitive labor market and grueling job description make it even harder to find people in the more rural parts of the state.

“We are having trouble in places like Jackman, Rangeley, Plymouth, Bangor,” Doughty said. “It is definitely getting worse.”

WIDESPREAD LABOR SHORTAGE

States across the northern third of the United States all are running into the same problem, Doughty said. So far, the department has been able to cover 21,200 miles of state roads, but has had to move crews around, run trucks with only one driver and put managers behind the wheel.

“We will do everything we can to make sure the roads are treated like they are every year,” he said.

Towns and cities in Maine are having an equally tough time finding qualified drivers. Buxton got a dozen applications for a full-time public works laborer, but few had a commercial license or had driven a plow truck before, said public works director Kevin Kimball. The full-time position starts at $18.36 an hour, with benefits. So far, no one has applied for a part-time plow driver job in Buxton paying $17.17 an hour.

“There are tons of commercial driving jobs, most people are already employed or don’t have much experience,” Kimball said.

Snowplows clear the Maine Turnpike in Kennebunk in 2017. Maine faces a dire shortage of truck drivers.

At least a dozen advertisements for full- and part-time highway workers were posted to the online Maine Municipal Association jobs board this week.

Staffing is one of the biggest problems that cities and towns currently face, association spokesman Eric Conrad said. The shortage is partially because of “colliding pressures” from residents who want to keep property taxes low while also receiving a wide array of services.

“Sooner or later, the public is going to have to look at wages and benefits not just to municipal workers, but in general,” Conrad said.

PRESSURE FROM WAGE WARS

Entry-level state highway maintenance workers earn $13.95 an hour and can get to $19 before moving into supervisory or management positions. Workers who stick with the department through 20 weeks of winter get a $1,000 “snowfighter” bonus.

Those wages are near the bottom of what Maine highway workers are paid. The statewide median wage is $16.80 an hour. Cumberland County highway workers make $17.94 as a median wage and workers in York County make more than $21 an hour, according to data from the Maine Department of Labor.

There are only four counties – Waldo, Kennebec, Sagadahoc and Penobscot – where the bottom quarter of earners makes less than the department’s starting wage.

The state’s entry-level pay is “under the standard of a livable wage in the state of Maine,” said Ramona Welton, president of the Maine State Employees Association, the union that represents transportation workers.

“They are going to train you and put you in a quarter-million-dollar plow truck and pay you less than $14 an hour,” she said. “If municipalities offer comparable and higher wages than that, the state isn’t going to be able to keep workers.”

But Doughty thinks there are generational trends affecting the worker shortage, too. It is uncommon for people younger than 40 to apply for state highway jobs, Doughty said. When they do get hired, young workers frequently stay with the department just long enough to get Class B truck driver certification and take a better-paying job elsewhere. There are plenty of jobs for drivers that offer a predictable work schedule instead of being on-call to work long hours plowing and sanding the roads on nights, holidays and weekends.

Maine DOT lost 28 workers in Cumberland and York counties last year, a 35 percent attrition rate. Most of those were entry-level workers who were hired only months before, creating a “revolving door” of new hires into the same positions Doughty said. Historically, the department has had a 10-12 percent turnover rate.

The problem extends to private drivers with a plow hooked up to their pickup truck. Many drivers are dropping out because of the strains of age and long, hard hours, the Sun Journal in Lewiston reported this month.

Many private-sector advertisements for Class B drivers offering starting wages of $18 to $22 an hour with health, vacation and retirement benefits were posted to online job sites during a search Tuesday. Several companies touted a dependable schedule without night and evening work.

“I think some of it is generational, some of it is a growing economy and demand,” Doughty said. “When people have choice, they get to pick their lifestyle.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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