Snow Plow Drivers wanted
Plow Driver shortage will affect snow removal on some highways
by Wyoming Department of Transportation
December 18, 2006
Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) will be unable to maintain previous levels of snow removal on some highways this winter because of difficulties in recruiting and retaining snowplow drivers in areas where the energy and mineral industries pay higher wages than the state.
Forty-five of WYDOT's 391 permanent driver positions statewide are vacant, but in some areas up to half of the jobs are unfilled.
The problem is worst in the southwest and northeast corners of the state, where the energy and mining industries are booming, creating high demand for experienced truck drivers and wages as much as double what WYDOT can pay its drivers.
"There are two pages of truck driver jobs advertised in the Rock Springs newspaper, and there are seven companies looking for snowplow drivers in the Jackson papers," said Jim Montuoro, WYDOT's maintenance engineer for southwest Wyoming. "We have 17 vacancies out of 90 positions, or 19 percent. Our level of service will suffer this year."
Some of the energy companies are offering signing bonuses of up to $1,000 and wages of up to $20 an hour for experienced drivers. Under the state pay plan, wages for the vast majority of WYDOT's plow drivers range from $8.36 to $14.90 per hour, depending on their experience.
Another factor making it difficult to recruit drivers is the limited availability of affordable housing in the boom areas. Faced with these problems, WYDOT's southwest district is having trouble recruiting maintenance foremen as well as plow drivers. The district has three foremen positions vacant.
In WYDOT's northeast district, the department is losing drivers not only to private industry, but also to the city of Gillette and Campbell County, which are paying wages higher than the state allows WYDOT to pay its drivers.
Fifteen percent of the 81 snowplow driver positions in the northeast district are vacant, and 11 of those openings are in Campbell County, meaning the crews there are at only half strength. If a storm affects the entire district and plows are needed in all of the district's five counties, it will take the shorthanded crews in Campbell County twice as long to plow all the highways in their areas.
"We have major concerns in the Gillette, Moorcroft and Wright areas," said Larry Konetzki, district maintenance engineer. "We will cover the roads as we can get to them based on the traffic volumes they serve. If a storm is over the Campbell County area only, we will slide plows over from neighboring stations, but the level of service will suffer, and we'll have more overtime costs and very tired drivers."
Even on fully-staffed crews, the efficiency of the snow removal service may not be at previous levels because the overall experience of WYDOT's drivers has fallen as veteran drivers leave to take higher-paying jobs.
"I think it usually takes two years of plowing experience before a driver knows the highways and conditions well enough to reach peak efficiency," said Tim McGary, district maintenance engineer for southeast Wyoming. "We are concerned about the level of inexperience on our crews. Probably every crew has at least one guy with no experience this year."
Only three of 12 drivers in Laramie, seven of 12 in Cheyenne and nine out of 12 in Rawlins have experience plowing snow, he said.
As valuable as experience is for plow drivers, that experience is what makes it difficult for WYDOT to keep them. "If you hire someone, train them so they can get their commercial driver license and then give them six months to a year of experience plowing snow, they become prime targets for the oil field," McGary said. "If they can double their salary, how do you talk them out of that?"
Three vacant driver positions in Rawlins have been open for about 18 months. Compounding the problem of higher wages in private industry, McGary said, is a state pay plan in which veteran drivers with the department for five to 10 years are making less than people hired a year ago. That problem is being created, he said, because WYDOT must offer potential recruits as much as the state pay plan will allow in order to have any hope of getting new drivers in the current economy.
The effects of not being able to fill some driver vacancies will be felt in areas where crews are full. "We can't give WYO 130 in the Saratoga area the service we have in the past because we have to send plows from there up to work on I-80 because of the vacancies in Rawlins," McGary said.
In the central Wyoming district, 10 of the 103 plow-driver positions are unfilled, and retirements will create another two vacancies by the end of the year. Five of those vacancies are in Casper, and the rest are in Midwest, Kaycee and Shirley Rim.
"We keep advertising and hoping we can find people to fill these jobs, said District Maintenance Engineer Cal Goddard. "In the meantime, we'll do as much as we can with the drivers we have."
The northwest Wyoming district where Ron Huff serves as district maintenance engineer is having less difficulty keeping driver positions filled, but Huff said there are periods of months in which crews work shorthanded while replacements are recruited and hired.
"My real concern is, if we continue to lose people and we are constantly having to hire and train new people, we will have trouble adhering to the snow plan," Huff said. WYDOT's snow plan designates what level of snow removal service it will provide on each highway in the state.
The department provides 24-hour service if needed on I-80 and the busiest sections of I-25. On the rest of I-25 and I-90 and the busiest sections of secondary highways, plows run up to 20 hours a day. On highways with less traffic, the goal is to keep the routes passable for drivers taking reasonable winter driving precautions. The least-traveled highways are plowed only during daylight hours and when trucks have completed work on higher-priority highways.
Wyoming Department of Transportation