Truck driver shortage delays Penacook leaf collection, may slow snow plowing

A Trackless Vehicle leaf loader spew out leaves into a city truck along Mountain Road in East Concord on Tuesday, November 1, 2022. The annual leaf clean up has started around the city.

A Trackless Vehicle leaf loader spew out leaves into a city truck along Mountain Road in East Concord on Tuesday, November 1, 2022. The annual leaf clean up has started around the city. GEOFF FORESTER

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 11-15-2023 4:21 PM

The shortage of commercial truck drivers that is plaguing industries across the country has shown up in Concord in an unexpected location: Penacook’s curbs.

The City of Concord’s annual leaf collection has been paused in the northern village of Penacook because there aren’t enough licensed drivers to operate trucks for three clean-up crews at once, said Chip Chesley, director of General Services for Concord.

The city has cautioned people in Wards 1, 2, 3 and part of Ward 5 that if they’ve already raked their leaves to the curb – awaiting pickup by the city – then the pile may sit there for a couple of weeks unless they bag it themselves. Bagged leaf collection will start on Monday, November 20, and continue through Friday, December 8.

“If the weather continues to hold … we hope to be getting into the Penacook area the week of Nov. 27, right after Thanksgiving” for pickup of loose leaf piles, Chesley said.

Penacook is on pause rather than other portions of the city because that is where the crew shortfall was greatest. Collection won’t start there until one of the other regions is finished.

Chesley said the worker shortfall came on suddenly: “Over the past six months we’ve had probably the highest attrition rate of employees I’ve ever seen in my career in public works, over 30 years.”

That mostly involves people who have commercial driving licenses, necessary to operate the six-wheel trucks that are “the bread and butter ” of the city’s leaf collection and other services.

Concord isn’t alone, as many public services are scrambling to hire people with commercial licenses. Drivers on Massachusetts highways, for example, will see the Bay State’s Department of Transportation using automated highway signs to beg drivers to become snowplow drivers.

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The American Journal of Transportation reports a shortage of “more than 80,000 drivers” of various levels throughout the country, and estimates that retirements of aging drivers could push the shortfall to 160,000 by 2030.

Chesley said the City Council will contemplate at its Dec. 11 meeting whether to pay a bonus to attract employees with commercial driver licenses to support winter operations, and a stipend for those who sit in the cab and perform “wing” operations from the passenger seat, ensuring that the plows don’t hit things. “We’re trying to stem the trend,” he said.

The federal Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act requires every state to meet the same minimum standards for driver licenses for vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of 26,000 pounds or more, or those designed to transport 16 or more people, such as school buses.

“It’s not like getting a driver’s license. You and I can get a driver’s license easily. There’s a process – it takes time and money to get (a commercial license),” Chesley said.

The city will help train employees who want the license, at a cost that Chesley estimated at “around $5,000” apiece.

“When you lose one of those, it hurts,” he said.