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As in 2020, some municipalities scaled back the frequency of their recycling collections in 2021 in response to bottlenecks related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Municipalities and private haulers alike reported driver shortages in 2021. When asked about hiring for Recycling Today’s State of the Municipal Recycling Industry report in September of last year, 67 percent of haulers who responded said it is either challenging or very challenging. In some instances, the driver shortage prompted municipalities to temporarily halt recycling collections.

In late July 2021, the Department of Public Works in Chattanooga, Tennessee, paused its curbside recycling services because of a lack of drivers to staff its collection routes. According to a statement from the city, it “was so short on CDL (commercial driver’s license) drivers, the department needed to recruit additional manpower to cover their full scope of residential services at the curb.”

Private haulers also were stressed by driver shortages.

“The waste industry has felt the impact of a diminishing labor force across the entire nation,” says Gayane Makaryan, east area communications manager at Cincinnati-based Rumpke Waste & Recycling.

Keith Banasiak, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Longwood, Florida-based Waste Pro USA, says “challenging” is a good word to describe the driver shortage. “When you are short of staff and you are running behind, that garbage is still out there,” he says. “It becomes challenging because you put more workload on the people that you do have, and it makes it harder for them to want to continue and stay.”

In addition to a driver shortage, Banasiak says Waste Pro has been short on helpers to service its collection routes. “We’ve had situations where we’ve had to downsize routes to overcome the fact that we don’t have helpers. Helpers are in short supply.”

Shortening some routes ensures drivers can complete them efficiently, Banasiak says.

The driver shortage has affected haulers’ contracts with municipalities, as well. Rumpke faced several contract penalties because of collection inefficiencies.

Makaryan says she is thankful each of those communities where Rumpke faced contract penalties was willing to work with the company, knowing staffing was a challenge.

“Rumpke also quickly worked to remedy the situation by bringing in drivers from other locations to assist with service,” she adds. “We also invested heavily in recruiting and retention efforts to attract new candidates.”

In May of last year, Silver Spring, Maryland-based Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) released a two-page paper titled “Let’s Work Together: Addressing the Labor Shortage in Solid Waste Collection Services” that analyzed the waste and recycling industry’s worker shortage. According to the report, increased recycling and waste tonnages, COVID-19 illnesses, extended unemployment benefits and stimulus checks were disincentives for people to keep their jobs in the waste and recycling industry.

SWANA states, “Both public and private sector collection service providers are facing increased difficulty hiring and retaining collection truck drivers and helpers. Some waste and recycling collection service providers are having difficulty providing services at pre-COVID-19 service levels.”

Recognizing these challenges, municipalities, haulers and industry associations are working to find solutions to ease the driver shortage that is affecting municipal recycling collection routes.

Considering compensation and career path

According to SWANA’s May 2021 report, increasing compensation for drivers and helpers is one long-term solution that could make these positions more attractive to potential applicants.

Some municipalities and haulers have taken that step and noticed improvements in recruitment and retention. A significant driver pay increase helped to ensure Chattanooga could resume its recycling collection routes in November 2021.

According to a statement from the city, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly announced in August 2021 that curbside recycling service could resume pending passage of a 42.6 percent pay increase to recruit CDL drivers to the city’s workforce. “Now that we’re able to provide essential pay to our essential workers, we can maintain continuity to the services that make cities livable and sustainable,” says Chattanooga Chief of Staff Brent Goldberg.

Recruitment bonuses are another incentive that can help.

Banasiak says Waste Pro has been offering recruitment bonuses that range from $1,500 to $5,000 paid out over time to employees who help with recruitment. “We have relied on those, and those have been somewhat successful.”

However, SWANA says communities that contract for waste and recycling collection services might have to renegotiate their contracts to reflect wage increases associated with drivers and helpers. Collection fee increases or increases to public sector budgets also could help to cover those costs.

To stay competitive when recruiting drivers, Waste Pro has increased its driver pay by about 20 percent between 2020 and 2021. However, Banasiak says, Waste Pro’s contracts are primarily based on fixed rates that need to be renegotiated. He notes it’s not easy to go back to a municipality and request a rate increase to help offset higher labor costs.

“Those conversations are difficult and ongoing,” he says. “We’ve had to look at contracts and really decided on the future of even extending current contracts, what language looks like in future contracts and what changes need to be made today in order to continue successfully with some of these agreements.”

Beyond monetary benefits, municipalities and haulers should highlight the value of these careers. SWANA says these jobs generally are recession-resistant, providing security to employees.

Makaryan of Rumpke says it is important to teach people these driver positions are long-term careers and not just temporary jobs. To change that perspective, she says, haulers need to invest in communication and training.

“Part of our training includes showing candidates what a day in the life of a driver will be,” Makaryan says.

She adds, “It’s important for us that potential hires understand the scope of work. The training we offer also includes onboarding processes where the new hire has an opportunity to learn about the company and the career potential.”

At Rumpke, many regional vice presidents also have their CDLs and have worked as drivers at some point in their careers, which helps to highlight career potential within the company.

Makaryan says, “Our region vice presidents are also very involved with our new hires. Exposing new hires to all departments helps paint the picture of opportunities available.”

Photo courtesy of Rumpke

Leaning on outside help

With the tight labor market, some hauling companies have relied on staffing agencies to recruit drivers. Banasiak says Waste Pro seldom used third-party recruitment companies in the past, but with today’s tight job market, the company has been using temp agencies and other third-party companies in 2021.

LRS, a waste and recycling services provider headquartered in Morton Grove, Illinois, has made more than a dozen acquisitions in the past year, and that growth has spurred the need for more talent, including drivers.

George Strom, vice president of municipal services at LRS, became the company’s interim vice president of people development in the fall of 2021. Strom says one thing he recognized early on in this new role was that it can be a challenge to find drivers in some of the new regions and territories LRS serves.

“When we enter new markets, we need to understand the talent base that’s available,” he says. “We saw a challenge to grow our market when we were unable to find drivers and operators, though, and my concern was when we enter new markets, we may miss opportunities if we don’t get enough new drivers to grow.”

Strom adds that LRS is focused on growing its driver base in the new territories it serves. To ease the recruitment process, he says the company partnered with Inflection Poynt, a Dallas City, Illinois-based staffing agency focused on the waste and recycling industry. The company formed in 2019 and has been working with several large haulers.

Mark Mutton, the founder and CEO of Inflection Poynt, says his team targets recruiting drivers who are employed currently in other industries to fill positions for the company’s clients.

“We seek currently employed individuals who show up to work every day—qualified candidates who don’t even know they are looking for a different career path,” Mutton says.

He continues, “We pride ourselves on being more than just a candidate-sourcing program. Clients hire us to find them qualified drivers. We learn their viewpoints and goals. We define what success would look like to them and to us. We identify some deficiencies in the hiring process. And then, at the end of the day, [the clients] end up with qualified candidates looking for a new career path.”

As of mid-December 2021, LRS has used Inflection Poynt for a few of its locations. In one instance, Strom says, Inflection Poynt was able to send his team 50 applicants for driver positions within one day. “That has helped us to grow our driver base quickly,” he adds. “They do a really good job and have been really helpful.”

Applying automation

Beyond recruitment efforts, automating collection trucks and using routing software can help municipalities and hauling companies that are struggling to service collection routes efficiently.

When the city of Baltimore experienced higher rates of employee turnover in its Bureau of Solid Waste in 2020, it invested in routing software to improve its solid waste and recycling collection services. The city added Rubicon software to its 140 solid waste and recycling collection vehicles to digitize the routes.

Makaryan says proper routing “can cut down on the number of trucks and drivers that service a location.” She says Rumpke’s logistics department regularly reviews its routes and uses routing software to help improve efficiency, which reduces the need to hire more drivers and helpers in some instances.

More recently, Baltimore automated recycling collection, adding wheeled carts with the help of a grant from The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia. The city says automated recycling collection enables safer and more efficient collection efforts and ensures continuity of service during labor shortages.

Although automation does ease staffing shortages and reduces the need for helpers on collection routes, Banasiak adds that it’s another expense haulers need to consider carefully.

“When you go to automate, you have to get new carts. There is an expense for that, [and] trucks are more expensive,” he says. “You drop an additional man off, but there is expense to getting automation in place.

“I think we’ll see more automation,” he concludes. “We’re prepared for that, but it’s going to take time to get there.”

The author is a co-managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at msmalley@gie.net.