A persistent shortage of qualified plow drivers in southern Maine forced Department of Transportation road crew managers to stretch resources and put supervisors behind the wheel Sunday and Monday during the second big storm to hit the state in less than a week.

“In a lot of the state, we are stabilizing the workforce this winter. But in the southern tip we are still struggling a little bit,” said Dale Doughty, maintenance and operations director for the Maine DOT. Doughty was on the road Monday and unable to provide a specific estimate of how many open positions the department is trying to fill.

In early January, the transportation department announced it had 90 open highway-maintenance positions. Since then, it has received hundreds of applications and has managed to fill many positions, Doughty said.

The vacancies represented about 8 percent of the department’s 1,150 highway workers. In January, Doughty estimated that 12 percent to 15 percent of highway maintenance positions were unfilled in Cumberland and York counties.

Doughty said the agency has enough workers to keep up with winter maintenance, but successive winter storms in the past week have tested understaffed highway crews and forced managers to get creative. The problem is concentrated in the department’s southern region, headquartered in Scarborough, Doughty said. The region has about 10 crews and roughly half have staffing problems, he said.

The department normally assigns two drivers to each plow truck, rotating each driver in and out as needed, but is unable to do so at this time because of the staffing shortage. There is no set length for a shift during a storm, but managers evaluate drivers after 12 hours and also take into account weather conditions and the forecast, said spokesman Ted Talbot.

Managers in the southern region have moved workers around to fill shifts and at times put crew leaders behind the wheel of plow trucks, instead of supervising from pickup trucks. Lower-level managers are even primed to go into service should crews need help, and the southern region can get reinforcements from better-staffed western and midcoast regions if it needs to, Doughty said.

Shuffling manpower to deal with winter storms is normal practice, but the current shortage of drivers has made it more difficult.

“The challenge now is when you have a shortage of drivers or waiting for them to get a license, it is more intense, you have to make sure you use people to their greatest advantage,” Doughty said. “We are stretching the resources we have.”

This week’s winter storms have been spaced out enough to give tired drivers a break between long stints on the road. Managers had a good idea of how the blizzard Sunday and Monday was going to play out and scheduled crews to cover roads during the most intense periods, Doughty said.

“They use the character of the storm and the timing of the storm to their advantage,” he said.

Gary Pelletier, who drove a plow for the DOT in southern Maine on Monday, said the past week has been a busy one. “It’s been long days,” Pelletier said.

Finding and keeping long-term employees has been a challenge for the Maine DOT. Starting pay for entry-level positions on state highway crews is $13.50 an hour, much less than similar positions at municipalities and private companies in the state. Even with overtime and seasonal bonuses, workers often stay with the department only long enough to get a commercial license and move on to better-paying jobs. The problem is pronounced in southern Maine compared with parts of the state where the economy isn’t as strong.

It takes at least six months for an unlicensed new hire to get a commercial license to drive a large plow truck. That means that even as the Maine DOT is ramping up hiring, some highway crews are undermanned, although the state has allowed newly hired workers to clear highway ramps and road shoulders with smaller vehicles.

“All over the state we are always looking for good, quality applicants, because the more we have the better off we’ll be,” Doughty said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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