Commentary: Tackling Trucking's Perpetual Problem

Do you remember your first driver shortage? If you’ve been active in logistics or trucking for a decade or more, you’ll remember several occasions when truckers were almost as tough to find as snowflakes in the Florida Keys.

There was the shortage that hit truckload carriers when the economic recovery took hold in 2004 and lasted until the Great Recession. There were several acute driver shortages in the 1990s and 1980s when shippers told The Journal of Commerce that freight was left sitting for days at docks for want of a driver.

“It’s tough to find qualified drivers these days,” Peter Robinson of Jevic Transportation said in 1994. “There’s not many young guys coming into this business,” Anthony J. Branca of Preston Trucking said in 1992. “I don’t think motor carrier driver wages have kept up with increases in wages generally,” B.M. Shirley of Builders Transport said in 1987.

All three trucking companies are gone now, but the driver shortage is still with us. The complaints of Robinson, Branca and Shirley are echoed by carrier executives quoted in the cover story of the 2012 JOC Guide to Trucking, which is dedicated to this perpetual problem.

Trucking is a cyclical industry, and labor shortages have been part of that cycle longer then anyone working can remember. As far back as 1914, employers complained “of the great difficulty of securing drivers who are competent and who will work handling freight aside from those who drive horses.”

That quote is from an article in the Dec. 12, 1914, edition of The Traffic World that also hit on a fundamental factor in the driver shortage then and now: pay.

While agreeing that “the profit or loss from truck transportation is largely dependent upon the drivers ... a majority of truck owners will hire the men who will work cheapest, entrusting valuable property in their keeping; and permitting them to determine how much work they will do,” The Traffic World reported, warning that the owners of trucks “must expect to pay for the services of men who are worthy and are willing to promote the interests of their employers.” Amen.

Is there really a driver shortage? Webster’s New College Dictionary defines shortage as “a deficiency: insufficiency.” The number of drivers available to work, for truckload carriers at least, is by all reports insufficient. However, I don’t believe this insufficiency is an absolute shortage of qualified people who have the skills needed to drive a Class 8 truck, though we could reach that point.

What we have is a shortage of people willing to drive for the pay and under the conditions they’re being offered. This shortage is a market problem that can be solved by the market, but any solution will mean tough choices. Trucking companies will have to rethink how they do business. Shippers need to accept the driver problem is their problem or risk toxic supply chain shock. Drivers also will have choices about how they value and balance income, work and home life.

The associations representing shippers, trucking companies, logistics firms, freight brokers and, most important, truck drivers need to work together to crack this problem. If the shortage is a crisis, or even an impending crisis, where’s the industry task force to deal with it now or fend off pending harm?

The clock is ticking. Regulatory changes scheduled to take effect next year would exacerbate the problem by cutting into driver miles, hours and pay.

The choice may be between costly solutions now and even costlier ones in a few years. Let’s hope we don’t suffer a shortage of willpower on the way.

Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter @wbcassidy_joc.

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