READING, Pa. -- Jose Frias scrubbed a chicken processing plant for six years, never earning more than $8.50 an hour. The latest of Tomas Rodriguez's three layoffs came in December, when he lost his job making doorknobs and tools. Alfonso Lua left his native Mexico 26 years ago to pick fruit and vegetables in the United States, for $10,000 a year.
Nowadays, Frias and Rodriguez are learning to be long-haul commercial truck drivers, while Lua has been driving big rigs for seven years, making six times what he brought home from the orchards.
''This is easier; this is better," Lua said, standing beside his bright red rig in York, Pa. ''I don't work [outdoors] in the hot weather or the cold weather. I'm in my truck."
Their quests for more job security and better wages led them down a road that driver-starved trucking companies are hoping more Hispanics will follow.
Beset by an aging workforce and high turnover, trucking companies, which traditionally culled drivers from middle America, are recruiting in urban Hispanic communities, advertising in Spanish and setting up booths at job fairs.
Truck-driving schools also are responding to Hispanics hungry for better-paying jobs that do not require fluent English.
''The truck driver has been the domain of the white male for years and years and years, and the face of the truck driver is changing," said Robert Lake, executive publisher of Truckers News en Espanol. ''And the companies that want to be profitable and fill their trucks have to look outside of that one individual."
Hispanics are the country's fastest-growing ethnic group, accounting for an estimated one in seven of the nation's 1.3 million long-haul truckers, the same proportion as in the overall US population.
But that's not good enough for some trucking executives. The ranks of long-haul truck drivers expanded 1.6 percent last year, according to federal data, while industry expansion is projected at 2.2 percent a year over the next decade. If those trends hold, a current 20,000-driver shortfall will balloon to 110,000 by 2014, a figure that doesn't include the approximately 219,000 truckers expected to retire during that period, according to a study commissioned by American Trucking Associations.
To close the gap, companies want trucking to be attractive to Hispanics.
''In correlation to the growth of the [Hispanic] population, we're not reaching out as fast as we should," said Larry Johnson, president of the Nebraska Trucking Association.
''If you keep doing business like you did yesterday, you're eventually going to get run over," said Gary Kelley, a US Xpress vice president.