Michigan struggles to find snowplow drivers as labor shortages loom

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Michigan is grappling with a snowplow driver shortage while the state and some counties reconsider the decades-old practice of salting roads for a nearly $30 million price tag every year.

The labor shortage spreading across Michigan appears to be affecting state agencies as well, with the Michigan Department of Transportation announcing dozens of calls for new truck drivers just weeks before winter arrives in the state.

The Clarkston DPW snowplow gets an early start on Holcomb Road in this March 12, 2014, file photo.

“We have been struggling finding people,” said Mark Geib, administrator of MDOT’s Transportation Systems Management Operations division, adding that the department and its country contractors were still looking to hire over 100 temporary drivers, mostly in the southwest, to help clear snow and ice through the winter.

Temporary drivers who are hired every winter, he added, make up roughly a third of the employees who operate the around 1,200 snowplows the state deploys.

There may not be one reason that explains why folks are not showing interest in these positions, according to Geib, but he thinks a so far warmer fall may be prolonging construction season, the workers in which he said would usually have been laid off at this point in the year. Increasingly high demand for drivers with commercial drivers licenses may be responsible as well.

“We're competing against the private industry for getting the people we need,” he said, adding that the $20-25 hourly pay they can offer along with overtime and “solid benefits” should be more appealing to people, but don’t compare to private sector perks such as signing bonuses.

MDOT directly maintains about a quarter of the Interstates and US and M routes, Geib said, which includes snow services in the winter, and pays 63 county road commissions to maintain the rest.

One of the contractors is the Road Commission for Oakland County. Companies like Amazon appear to be scooping up drivers faster than the public sector can, which alongside COVID-related labor issues contributes to the shortage, said Craig Bryson, the Oakland commission's senior communications manager.

The county still was looking for about 20 temporary drivers and 10 permanent hires to operate its 140 snow plows and who would otherwise be responsible for tasks such as patching potholes, fixing guardrails and damaged road signs, and picking up animal carcasses.

Bryson and Geib don't think the shortage will add to any danger residents may encounter on state and county roads during the winter.

“We have contingency plans,” said Bryson. “The individual drivers may not have to work as long hours if we have more people, but we will get the job done, one way or the other.”

“We have very good people, very talented employees and very good equipment,” said Geib.

He added that counties and state agencies often “step up and help each other out” when one is experiencing problems, loaning out qualified drivers and equipment as needed. “I would imagine that's exactly what will be happening this year if we don't get to where we totally need to get to,” Geib said.

"The City of Detroit (Department of Public Works) is ready with equipment and materials to manage snow on City streets," said deputy director Dayo Akinyemi in a statement. "In addition, contractors are ready to clear snow on residential streets.

"Due to shortage of drivers in the industry, we will work with our staff and our drivers to complete their routes in a timely and efficient manner. We are ready with plenty of salt and resources to handle the upcoming season."

Representatives from the Macomb County Roads Commission did not respond to requests for information on the county's snowplow driver status. 

Departments also have started seeking ways to limit the use of road salt, which is released by the same trucks that plow snow, to melt it and de-ice roads. It's an effort to reduce high economic and environmental costs, they say.

Michigan uses 450,000 tons of salt a year, according to Geib, which costs the state between of $25 million and $30 million in an average winter, although harsh years have seen more than $100 million spent on salting roads. 

“It runs off the roads and gets into the waterways," Bryson said. "It's not good for the flora, the fauna. On the other hand ...if we don't salt, there's a great risk that people will get into crashes and potentially die on the roads.”

Oakland County, according to Bryson, has dramatically reduced the salt its 140 trucks release every year using multiple methods, including upgrading the trucks with computerized salt spreaders that control how much salt is released while spreading it over a wider area. The old distribution method they used employed gravity.

Another method is spraying salt brine, a water mixture that uses a smaller amount of salt and is sprayed on roads just before a storm to prevent the snow from binding to the roads.

Salt brine is being tested in a pilot program that began in Montcalm County in 2020, according to Geib, which may have reduced the salt used there by about 20%. The program will be expanded this year to include two routes, in Mount Pleasant and near Lansing, and began after successful runs in Iowa and Wisconsin.

Scientists like Rick Relyea, executive director of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute in New York, think that reducing the amounts of salt will be the best way to reduce the harm it causes the environment,

Salt introduces chloride to water, the researcher said. For example, it can facilitate the leaching of heavy metals, such as lead in the pipes, and poison the water.

Relyea referred to the Flint water crisis as an example of the damage leaching can cause, and said the extent of the damage can be  understated because guidance, such as the legal threshold for how much salt can be in lakes and other bodies of water, can be based on outdated information.

 "We now know that 1/5 of (the legal thresholds) can still kill animals" in as little as a couple of days, he said. 

He lauded the efforts around the country, including in Michigan, to limit salt.

"It it is absolutely a win-win for everybody involved," he said.