Recovery gaining traction, trucking firms picking up speed

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The state’s trucking industry appears to be on the upswing, offering one of the clearest indications of an economic recovery.

The trucking industry in Colorado, which provides 146,000 jobs and total wages of $7.1 billion, is an important bellwether because economic slowdowns show up first in the manufactured-goods sector. Customers cut back or cancel orders, and truckers feel the impact before anyone else. Conversely, as the flow of goods increases, truckers are among the first to benefit.

“We led the nation into recession,” said Colorado Motor Carriers Association CEO Greg Fulton, “and we’ll lead it out.”

“The last two years have been the worst in the history of the business,” said Fulton, “but now we’re inching upward. Tonnage is up, rates are up, and things seem to be improving slowly.”

In Fountain, a major new trucking dealership, Transwest, is nearly complete.

The Commerce City-based big rig sales and service company, expects to open its $4 million, 39,000-square-foot dealership in Fountain near the end of the month.

The company bought the property near Interstate 25 and Exit 128 in 2005, but collapsing demand for big rigs, as well as reduced credit availability, led it to postpone building for several years.

Local trucking firms have seen business improve as well.

“I wouldn’t say business is great, but we’ve gradually gotten back,” said Leo Meyer of Meyer Trucking. “We’ve got one customer who’s really doing well, and they keep us hopping.”

Careersingears.com, a job site that caters to the industry, listed 61 jobs for drivers in Colorado Springs earlier this month. Some of these positions may be come-ons for driver training schools, or placed by staffing services, but many cited specific local opportunities.

Carolyn Nielsen of ProDrive, a staffing service, said drivers are definitely in demand.

“There’s been a pickup,” she said, “but we’ll have to wait until January to find out whether it’s just seasonal.”

Fulton isn’t surprised that trucking companies are contracting with ProDrive, rather than hiring on their own.

“I think that companies are still very slow to hire new employees,” he said. “Health care costs are up, fuel is up, and it’s very difficult to get financing for new equipment or for operating capital — so they’re very cautious.”

Still, truck sales have picked up.

“Our fiscal year ended in October, and it was a pretty good year,” said Chris McBroom, general manager of McCandless Truck Center on Garden of the Gods Road. “It’s been a pretty steady climb, and we expect that it’ll continue in 2011.”

McBroom attributes much of the growth in sales to a rebound in the economy along with aging fleets.

“The average truck on the road is almost eight years old and the lifespan of a truck is a function of miles traveled. At a certain point, you have to replace it,” he said.

Fulton is optimistic about the road ahead.

“We’ve seen consistent moves upward,” he said. “It’s a long way from what it was, but we’re definitely in a recovery mode. And when you’re walking out of the swamp, it’s better to be waist-deep in water than up to your nose.”