HELENA — The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) is responsible for plowing roughly 25,000 lane miles of highway. Right now they’re trying to fill snowplow driver positions across the state.
Like many Montana businesses and organizations, MDT is feeling the effects of the worker shortage. What does that mean then for Montana roads this winter if those plow driver positions aren’t filled?
“For commerce, for goods and services to move across the state, these are critical positions to keep the roads open and for people to go about their business, their recreation activities, and their work,” explained MDT Equipment Bureau Chief Walt Kerttula.
MDT says they will always work hard and prioritize the roads that need plowing the most, but if MDT are short of drivers, then some highways may see fewer passes, or need to close until a plow can get there at a later time or date.
Snow doesn’t fall all at once, which requires snowplow drivers to make numerous passes on the same road. Say the snow falls throughout the state and those MDT plow drivers need to make 10 passes on each of the 25,000 lane miles the state is responsible for. Collectively, those drivers will have traveled the same distance it takes to reach the moon - about 240,000 miles. In a really bad snow event, they’ll collectively plow millions of miles of roadway.
Techs and maintenance employees said that , depending on the storm, driving a plow can also be a lot of fun, given the technology that they use.
“With powder, it’s almost zen, moving it off the road,” explained maintenance technician Kevin Peffer.
MTD fabricates its own plow trucks and has created its own innovations to help with addressing Montana’s winter roads. However, those harsh conditions take a toll on the vehicles.
“You take one of these trucks that have 100,000 miles on it, that would equate to almost half a million on a road truck that you see going down the interstate,” Peffer said. “Because of the weight, the abuse, the salt, the sand, we lose a truck, that means now more pressure on another guy to cover another lane, another area.”
Unfortunately, other drivers can be causes for a snowplow being out of commission. Plows are hit more than a dozen times on Montana roads each year. A common reason for a plow being hit is due to the reduced visibility during a storm, or from the snow the plow is kicking up. Drivers are asked to stay five car lengths back for the safety of everyone.
In 2021, the Montana Legislature passed a law identifying green flashing lights on a vehicle as a snowplow.
MDT has 17 shops across the state to get plows repaired as fast as possible so they can get back out on the road. Many of the MDT maintenance employees started out as seasonal snowplow drivers.
As for who makes a good plow driver, it’s someone who’s dedicated. After all, they’re the earliest first responders for a winter storm.
“I mean, that's why they’re out there every day,” said Kerttula. “They’re not out there plowing roads for themselves to get around. They’re plowing it for the citizens in Montana and people traveling through Montana to be able to get where they need to go. Their dedication is tremendous and essential to keep people traveling throughout Montana.”
The state website provides this overview:
Season typically begins mid-November and ends in March, depending on weather. Must be able to work in extreme weather conditions and remain focused and seated for extended periods of time. Must be able to perform moderate physical activity in lifting, carrying, and/or operating the tools and equipment. The above statement reflects the general details considered necessary to describe the principle functions of the job identified and shall not be construed as a detailed description of all work requirements that may be inherent in the job. Temporary, seasonal positions. Openings to work various hours such as call-out, 20 hours, and 40 hours per week.
More information about open snowplow driver positions open at MDT can be found here (search for Temp Maintenance Tech/Winter Snowplow).