“We want the traveling public to understand why it could take longer this season to clear highways during winter storms,” said Montana Department of Transportation maintenance administrator Jon Swartz.
MDOT is currently short of around 90 drivers able and willing to work as snowplow drivers–an issue affecting states across the country. In particular, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and Pennsylvania are struggling to find snow plow drivers amidst the current ongoing driver shortage. Finding drivers for these positions is especially difficult as the jobs involve working in hazardous conditions, inclement weather, and strange shifts on top of the requirement for a commercial driver license.
Because of this, industry experts predict that many passenger drivers across the United States will wind up stuck or delayed on snowy roadways.
“Knowing [what’s really happening] helps motorists plan ahead and adjust–or even delay–travel plans,” noted Swartz.
This issue has become more prominent as winter storms have begun bringing in heavy amounts of snow to the Upper Great Lakes, with more snow likely to hit Colorado, Utah, Nebraska, Nevada, Iowa, and New Mexico–especially in higher elevations.
The shortage of snowplow operators has been made worse by so many drivers aging out or leaving the industry, a low unemployment rate, and boosted need for trucker and diesel mechanics throughout many different industries. Because of this, private companies have been working to offer incentives like bonuses and increased pay to remain competitive, whereas state agencies aren’t able to be quite so flexible when it comes to salaries and benefits.
“Everyone’s sort of competing for the same group of workers, and private companies can often offer higher salaries than the state government,” explained Washington State Department of Transportation spokeswoman, Barbara LaBoe.
Apparently, state COVID-19 vaccine mandates have exacerbated the issue, as more than 150 winter operations workers left the industry due to compliance opposition, LaBoe added.
Because the trucking industry is facing the largest shortage on record (of more than 80,000 drivers), any state looking for CDL-holding workers are competing with private trucking companies boosting incentives around pay, as well, in a scrambling effort to be able to meet the demands of consumers.
Because of this, many states are offering to pay for the CDL training of snowplow drivers, although new hires with a CDL in hand may still not be available to work as soon as this winter season. Many snowplow operators often work throughout the year in various highway maintenance gigs, with some seasonal drivers coming in to fill the winter shifts.
Various roads needing service in Washington after undergoing major snow storms–particularly, around mountain passes–are likely to be closed for significant amounts of time, LaBoe explained. However, as long as a storm is isolated or doesn’t last long, weather forecasts can help drivers work through them efficiently.
“If we have a series of storms over several days, or if it hits the whole state at once, [the shortage] is going to become more evident because we don’t have as deep a bench,” she said.
American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ director of the winter maintenance technical service program, Rick Nelson, noted that luckily, snowplow drivers have a strong sense of dedication to their work as they know how important it is to passenger driver, emergency responder, and commercial driver safety.
Bringing in new drivers “to be out there in the worst conditions” is still tricky, though, he added. “You try to recruit, get out there and beat the bushes and convince folks that jumping in a plow in the middle of the night at Christmastime is a good career choice.”
Some states are experiencing the snowplow driver shortage more than others, such as Pennsylvania, which is currently short of around 830 workers. However, state transportation workers are confident the drivers on hand will be able to keep the roads as clear as possible.
“Our goal is to keep roads safe and passable rather than completely free of ice and snow,” said Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokeswoman, Alexis Campbell, who added that roads are routinely cleared as soon as there’s a break in snowfall.