Capacity is king in trucking today, and the truck driver is the coin of the realm.
That’s especially true at truckload carriers, which say they are having a hard time finding enough drivers to seat trucks, but it’s more and more the case for less-than-truckload carriers, too. It doesn’t matter how many terminal doors you have if you can’t find someone to drive line-haul or local pickup and delivery trucks.
As 2012 approaches, trucking companies and shippers must focus on rebuilding and managing their driver work force. I say “their” work force because the responsibility is shared.
The 2008-2009 recession reshaped transportation in ways that are still less than clear, but it is evident large numbers of trucks and drivers were swept from the landscape. The first article in The Journal of Commerce’s 2011 Guide to Trucking examines the capacity shortfall in vehicles — Class 8 tractors or trucks. The second delves into the nature of the so-called driver shortage and questions whether it is a shortage of qualified drivers, a shortage of pay or a shortage of willpower on the part of the trucking industry to make tough changes to increase its manpower.
What’s striking is that when the capacity bubble of the late 2000s burst, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of Class 8 tractors and 18 percent of tractor-trailer drivers left the market. Many of the trucks are gone for good, but surely some of the 331,660 big rig drivers who federal statistics show left the industry from 2008 to 2010 could be brought back.
Some argue overly generous unemployment benefits coupled with the biggest black market economy since World War II discourage drivers from returning to full-time work. But if a former trucker can cobble together a better living on a portion of his or her old wages and an off-the-books job, what does that say about the livelihood trucking offers? Or how long that driver would stay on the job or with a company if he or she were rehired?
The truckload carriers that claim a driver shortage need to rethink not only driver pay and benefits but also their relationship with drivers. Trucking companies have been reporting shortages of qualified drivers since at least 1914 — basically whenever the economy is strong and shipping demand increases.
That says a lot about the nature of the shortage, and what’s really running short.
Carriers and shippers need to have a very serious conversation about drivers: how much they’re paid, how they’re trained and how they’re treated on the job. If you’re a shipper who thinks it’s a problem for your carrier to solve, don’t be surprised when your freight sits on the dock and your rates head skyward.
That’s a real possibility for 2012, especially if new driver hours-of-service rules cut into productivity just as tougher enforcement of federal safety regulations forces more poorly performing drivers out of the business.
Mark Rourke, president of transportation at truckload carrier Schneider National, believes everyone in the supply chain plays a part in creating job satisfaction for drivers.
“Shippers who forge a strategic alliance with their carriers and shift their thinking,” he says, “from a procurement mentality to a transportation mindset will have an advantage.”
William B. Cassidy is senior editor of trucking and domestic transportation. He can be contacted at 202-355-1152, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.