Monday, November 29, 2021

How we can help ease the trucker shortage


Editor’s note: This is the last column in a 3-part series discussing America’s truck driver shortage.


We treat truck drivers like dirt.


By “we”, I mean those of us outside the industry…businesses, government, citizens. It’s not just the trucking companies that have made truckers’ lives difficult. We, in our own ways, contribute daily to the frustration had by drivers and the ensuing difficulty had in recruiting and retaining talent for this incredibly-important role within our economy.


It starts with the businesses.


Talk to any trucker. Everyone one of them has horror stories about shipping and receiving departments that have treated them badly. The biggest issue: They don’t value drivers’ time.


Consider a large retail customer of ours whom we had to correct earlier this year. The driver was over an hour late for his appointment. His punishment? He had to wait two days to have his trailer loaded.


Think about that. The man had places to be. It could have been on the road so he could have secured another load and more income. It could have been at home with family. But, instead, a warehouse worker with a god complex felt it best to teach him a lesson. At two days, that story is an extreme, but making drivers what a half day if not a whole day is a regular occurrence, everywhere.


There are also many businesses that don’t value drivers’ comforts. Throughout the pandemic, there have been numerous reports of delivery drivers who weren’t afforded the ability to use the restroom at their destinations because they could be carrying Covid. Female drivers in Canada made the news after bringing this to light because they were dehumanized -- many were told to pop a squat behind their truck. As they rightly claimed, such abuses – waiting for, then being denied, access – could lead to health concerns like kidney issues and urinary tract infections.    


It’s not asking too much for corporations and small businesses to recognize that drivers’ time is valuable, as are the drivers themselves. Understand that they, too, have needs and wants: Recognize that they live by deadlines, too (their time is money just as yours is); provide them a means to relieve themselves (even if it takes investing in an outhouse rental due to Covid protocols); give them creature comforts (some places have trucker lounges); and extend a simple “thank you” (a gift card to a truck stop eatery means a lot).


This simple understanding needs to be undertaken by government because it, too, devalues truckers.


The proof is in the pudding with just the infrastructure bill alone. You would think that truckers – the people whose “office” is our infrastructure – would have seen a little more respect with the proceedings.


As the infrastructure bill was being fleshed out, the Senate version included a provision that the minimum insurance coverage should go from $750,000 to a whopping $2 million. Currently, insurance will cost an owner-operator with authority (not one who leased to a carrier) somewhere between $9,000 and $16,000. Most readers of this paper know of someone in their community who has his own rig…and they know that family lives modestly because money’s tight in trucking. It would have become more so had the House of Representatives not scratched that requirement.


That same bill, as it passed both chambers, failed to properly address a major issue for drivers – parking. Truckers need safe, free places to park and rest when their hours of service have run out. Most actually forgo true working time in order to find such places, which only adds to backlogs. One study found that drivers use about 8 hours out of their 11 allotted hours, and then stop to find parking – there are too few rest stops, public or private, with or without amenities. An amendment by Representative Mike Bost of Illinois would have allocated $1 billion (just 0.08% of the $1.2 trillion package) to parking. That was shut down and language was incorporated, sans funding, that simply said states should think about how to address the parking crisis.


Then, again, a government represents the people it serves. We as citizens make life a little difficult, if not dangerous, for drivers.


During my 40-minute afternoon commute I see more and more distracted drivers. On the police scanner I hear an increasing amount of fair-weather accidents. Truck drivers have to share the roads with these people and hope they don’t lose their livelihood or life in the process. Yet, the false narrative remains that it’s the trucks that are dangerous. We must be better behind the wheel.


If there’s anything this series has taught us – if there’s anything the supply chain crisis has taught us – it’s that we must all treat truck drivers better if we want to ensure that we can get the products we want, the grocery shelves and warehouses are filled, and we get the energy that we need for our homes and workplaces. We have to make that career attractive, safe, and vibrant – without truckers our economy literally comes to a standstill.



From the 29 November 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun

Monday, November 22, 2021

How the trucking industry can help itself


Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about America’s trucking crisis


We move a lot of freight to and from Confer Plastics. On an annual basis, about 20 million pounds of products leave our facilities for destinations across the USA and Canada. During any given week, literally dozens of truck drivers make stops at our loading docks.


So, we’ve seen and heard -- and long known – about the woes facing them as they try to navigate a long-simmering driver shortage that has finally been made apparent to the masses.


We understand the trucker’s life is not an easy one. And, for many, it’s not a fulfilling one.


So, how do does the industry rectify that and retain and recruit talent?


It all begins with value: What is a truck driver worth?


The quick answer: More than what they are getting now.


According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a driver is $47,130. More than 10% of them earn less than $30,600. If you look at it from an hourly perspective, and assume they are behind the wheel 60 hours a week, the median is comparable to an hourly wage rate of around $13 (using math of 40 hours of straight time plus 20 hours of overtime).


That small wage is a hard sell for a long-distance life on the road, especially when higher wages can be found in fast food joints or warehouses.


To make driving a truck more attractive, pay more. Much more. They deserve a true salary, something outside of the norm of income by miles or hours, to account for the time that is spent off the clock (for many, that previously-mentioned $13 is an under-calculation as it’s well-known in the industry that many drivers do that while waiting, getting loaded, or performing maintenance so they don’t eat into their mandated maximum of road hours). Currently, the top 10% of drivers earn in excess of $69,480. A median much closer to that than the $47,130 – like the halfway point between the two ($58,305) -- would certainly bring in talent.


That would then beg the question: Would the businesses that use their services be willing to pay more?


The response: We already are.


Earlier this year, before diesel costs really escalated, we found ourselves at the factory paying much more for shipments. For example, a truckload to Nevada was up 34%, Washington state was up 35%, and Indiana was 67% higher.


Those prices are all in response to scarcity. With a hot consumption economy and a driver shortage in excess of 80,000 truckers, it’s all supply-and-demand. Brokers and logistics companies can get what they want to book a load and they hold all the cards when it comes to where trucks go. That’s why, in the summer of 2020, my team had difficulty finding trucks to go to some regions. That why, now, backlogs are so significant at the ports.


Talk to a manufacturer or retailer; we’d be willing to pay the high prices that we are now if they ensured scarcity was no longer a thing and truckers were adequately compensated. Reliability and fairness are important when it comes to running a business.


While income is a big issue, it’s not the end-all be-all. To further improve the lot of truckers the logistics world must also address quality of life, too.


Trucking is a career that keeps drivers away from home for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. That’s unattractive to a trucker who is married or has children. They want, no, they deserve, family time. Trucking companies should make it a point to provide consistently-scheduled days of rest at the home front, ensuring a young driver can spend weekends with the kids or an older driver maybe gets designated weekdays as his “weekend” with his wife. Affording them time to be themselves and not at the mercy of the road and deadlines is not too much to ask. 


Trucking is, beyond that issue of emotional heath, physically unhealthy, too. It’s a sedentary lifestyle, no different than when someone sits behind a desk all day. The office worker, though, has options when the workday is over – they can workout in the basement, visit the gym, or go for a hike. Other than the few outliers we know who carry free weights with them, a trucker really doesn’t have those options. Once he gets to his rest stop, that’s it; there are no trails and there are few gyms. That can be improved with a partnership between the rest stop proprietors and trucking trade groups, unions, and firms. Collaborative investment can open more rest-stop gyms, like those that have been rolled out at some popular Pilot Flying J and TravelCenters of America sites across the country.


Income, quality of life, and health are just some of the many issues that need to be made right to ensure that the career is attractive for those in it and those who are yet to be recruited. These people deserve better. They’re worth it -- they don’t just drive truck….they drive America’s economy.


From the 22 November 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

America's trucking crisis


This definitely isn’t the 1970s.


Back then, truck drivers were cool.


Truckers were made incredibly popular by their protests against the oil embargoes in 1973, the long-lasting CB radio craze that gained steam that decade, and the plethora of big rig movies like “Convoy”, “Smokey and the Bandit”, “High-Ballin’”, and “Breaker! Breaker!”


Young people hungered to adopt that lifestyle that many associated with freedom and being a rebel, an outsider, your own man. They went out and got their CDLs in droves.  


Now, those folks aren’t so young anymore and today’s youths don’t want to drive.


The kids and teens who grew up in the ‘70s and got behind the wheel are now in their 50s and 60s. Some have retired. For others, retirement isn’t too far away – a third of all haulers are over the age of 55. To further reinforce that it’s an “old man’s” job, the average age of a trucker is my age, 46. For perspective, for restaurant workers it’s 27, 37 for retail workers, for farm workers it’s 38, and it’s 42 for teachers. The general workforce overall averages 40.


The aging out of drivers, along with lukewarm if not outright cold recruitment and retention, has led to a trucking crisis -- and that’s not hyperbole.


Per the American Trucking Associations, there’s a shortage of 80,000 drivers, a huge leap from the 61,500 deficit just before the pandemic.


That’s just one of the myriad reasons why America is faced with significant supply chain issues. There’s just not enough people to move freight. It’s a lot of work being put on fewer drivers. There’s only so much they can do. Truckers are overworked, understaffed, and, for the most part, underappreciated.


To the average person, the trucker shortage has become a matter of the visual and the visceral. The backed-up ports, which can’t have shipping containers moved fast enough, really make the crisis apparent to the eyes, just as the reports of delayed or missing Christmas presents make it known to the heart.


It shouldn’t have taken the pandemic to bring this to attention. This isn’t something new.


In a 2014 column this writer shared this observation about the number of truck drivers: As their ranks continue to slip or grow at a rate far below demand, there certainly won’t be enough product on the move. Delivery times will slip. Costs will rise. The impact on the end consumer from a service and cost standpoint will be astounding. Come 2020, unless something changes drastically, the economy will be in full crisis mode in regard to the shipping of food and goods.


Well, that time has come.


It’s an issue that was destined to happen and one that was painfully magnified by the nuances of the economy created by Covid and governments’ reactions to it. The virus and government orders forced people to buy things instead of doing things while also encouraging shopping at e-retailers rather than brick-and-mortar stores. Then, they were given the means to do it, with stimulus checks and unemployment bonuses. The increased expenditures, like all, needed and continue to need to be moved on our roads, from resource to factory to retailer to consumer. The diverted retail destinations also created more movement due to individual shipments going to consumers’ homes and the warehouse centers and parcel companies that move the products to them. You can’t move more with less.


It’s obvious that the Biden Administration has been asleep at the wheel with everything that happens behind the wheel – just as Trump and Obama were before this President. The Department of Transportation has a current budget of $89 billion and 55,000 employees. The Department of Commerce has 47,000 workers and a bill of $11.5 billion. The fact that those public entities couldn’t recognize a years-long threat to the economy and national security is concerning.


It’s even more concerning that the industry itself hasn’t adjusted their practices to make the career more attractive in terms of pay and quality of life. The aforementioned DOT and DOC should be the last lines of defense; the private sector should recognize and take care of its own problems. That it didn’t is a major frustration to the drivers and those of us who need their services.  


In the coming weeks, this column will discuss what can be done to alleviate the crisis -- next week is about what the industry can do; in two weeks, I’ll discuss what we can do as citizens, businesses, and governments.  


We as a society need to understand that truck drivers are truly essential workers. Without them, you’ve got no food, shelter, or products. They move everything you buy and the inputs that contribute to those things being grown, built, or produced.


A world without truck drivers is a world you wouldn’t want to -- or be able to -- live in.  


Let’s make things right for them.



From the 16 November 2021 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun