Two controversial approaches to “solving” the scarcity of commercially-licensed drivers

  (Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Capacity remains tight even as carriers are flexing their financial muscle and investing in trucks at almost historic levels. That is, until this past month when orders fell off in April. The order backlog reached an estimated 205,000 units, according to preliminary estimates at the end of April by transportation analysis ACT research. That backlog has more than doubled since last September, when orders sat at roughly 94,400 units. The order swell is generally due to the 2018 “capacity crunch” and a cash windfall for fleet owners, mostly the result of the new tax laws.

So what happened this past month as a seven-month expansion on driver employment came to a sudden halt? According to preliminary figures released last Friday by the Labor Department, payrolls at trucking firms dropped by 5,500 from March. While this could be a mid-year swoon, the result of loads of expansion and buildup of resources and infrastructure, there is some reason for concern. Why? Because other than rail, virtually everything else is up.

Parcel-delivery companies and warehouse operators added a combined 12,300 jobs, the result of continued growth in e-commerce shopping. Also, U.S. employers overall added 164,000 jobs in April, and unemployment fell to late-2000 levels at 3.9 percent. Also, the U.S. saw growth in manufacturing employment (24,000), propelled by the growth of durable goods industries.

The trucking industry is also trying to get the attention of shippers and working with those who are willing to get on board with professionalism and efficiency. Besides, detention issues, retention strategies are receiving increased scrutiny. Yet, for all this, the long-standing driver shortage could be showing the first signs of rearing its ugly head in a way that could have a painful economic impact on the industry as a whole.

The complexity of the issue is such that there may not be some sweeping solution that transforms the situation. Of course, topping the list among numerous surveys is that drivers are seeking more compensation for their difficult job. While freight rates are already on the climb, it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference, especially with the simultaneous uptick of the construction sector.

Currently, there are two initiatives underway that could help make a significant dent in the situation. One is legislative, and the other is cultural—and neither is coming without a fight and the ensuing growing pains.

Simulation technology and the DRIVE-Safe legislation

In coordination with the ATA, lawmakers have proposed a way to ease the long-haul driver shortage by allowing certified teenage drivers to cross state lines in their 18-wheelers. DRIVE-Safe (Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy Act), from Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.), would scrap a federal rule that bans drivers under 21 from transporting goods outside the state where they’re licensed, lowering the legal age to 18. 

“This legislation,” said John Kearney, CEO and President of Advanced Training Systems, “will help train drivers to a level far and above current licensing standards. It creates opportunity while reinforcing a culture of safety.”

Advanced Training Systems has developed advanced simulation technology and training that can help train new operators—safely—to deal with any on-the-road situations they may encounter. That, coupled with the training and preparation specified in the DRIVE-Safe Act, can turn out a new generation of safe, professional, and much-needed drivers.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) denies the existence of a driver shortage in the first place. While they do acknowledge the existence of a serious retention issue with truck drivers, especially among carriers (the U.S. trucking industry will need to hire almost 900,000 new operators over the next decade simply to maintain the current workforce levels), they are against the legislation. OOIDA president Todd Spencer said, “We think it’s irresponsible to put young drivers behind the wheel of a truck in order to avoid addressing the real problems. The focus should instead be on fixing the staggering turnover rate with better pay and working conditions.”

Safety groups have also slammed the plan, arguing that long-haul rides are riskier for drivers with less experience. Henry Jasny, vice president and general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a group that works to reduce highway accidents, said teenagers need more time to master 80,000-pound vehicles. His organization also insists that the presence of younger long-haul truckers on the highway will cause insurance costs to increase. “Younger drivers have higher crash rates,” Jasny said. “We have concerns about younger people who have less experience going from state to state, from rural to urban areas.”

Federal law does not permit 18-to-21-year-olds to drive Class 8 trucks across state lines, a regulation that Spear called “one of the dumbest federal policies I have ever come across.” Some 48 states allow people in this demographic, which includes students who have just graduated from high school, to drive Class 8 trucks within state lines.

Spear called for regulations that would lower the age limit for those who can possess a CDL but which also would establish controls so that younger drivers aren’t tasked with longer, coast-to-coast trips that might be better-suited to more experienced drivers.

Major users of trucking services, however, have been virtually unanimous in praising the idea behind the DRIVE-Safe Act, noting that the measure would require teenagers to log 400 hours of on-duty driving and 240 hours of working with an experienced driver in the passenger seat before being licensed to cross state lines.

“This legislation,” said Mark Allen, president and CEO of the International Foodservice Distributors Association, “creates opportunity while reinforcing a culture of safety to provide our nation’s youth with the critical skills they need to operate a truck in the 21st century.”

“The fleet owner’s organizations have real issues,” said Kearney. “There is burnout among drivers, and there is a lot of pressure being put on the trucking industry by shipping cost expectations. These issues need to be addressed and, to the extent possible, resolved. But there is also a severe driver shortage, there is unemployment among young people, and there is a distinct shortage of secure, well-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree.”

Women and the cultural shift

The demands of the job are steep, even with recent regulations limiting time on the road, and keep many otherwise qualified drivers from applying. The hours are long and don’t allow for much of a home life. Is women in trucking really controversial? Considering trucking is a male-dominated industry with only 6% women in its workforce, you can safely say so.

As FreightWaves reported on last week, Women in Trucking (WIT) is an organization that was created to encourage women into taking up employment in the trucking industry, and minimize the resistance women experience from breaking into the industry. In association with the National Transportation Institute (NTI), WIT developed the WIT Index that monitors the percentage of female drivers and leaders within the industry to understand gender inequality better.

The NTI conducts surveys with hundreds of trucking companies and compiles data about driver wages, benefits, and retirement plans. It analyzes the data to understand the ecosystem and also shares it with carriers for benchmarking and forecasting.

In recent findings, the percentage of female drivers has increased only marginally from 7.13% in 2016 to 7.89% by the end of 2017. The representation of women in management-related desk jobs increased from 23% in 2016 to 23.75% percent by December 2017.

The biggest surprise has been the increase in fleet companies, which have seen a 19% growth this year. This could mean a lot more fleets are serious about understanding the gender divide, which could pave the way for them creating initiatives to improve the gender ratio.

While these two dimensions to the issue could bring about a degree of change, it will take much more. The trucker shortage has fleets caught in something of a catch-22. Some fleets are offering to pay the licensing fee for new drivers, and offering higher wages as a way to attract new recruits. However, pressure to keep shipping costs down has kept them from increasing compensation. They’re more likely to make a late delivery if they’re short on drivers, and the fines they incur chip away at the extra money they need to offer to incentivize workers to sign up.

Median driver pay is just over $41,000. In addition to bonuses, fleets can offer more desirable routes and less time on the road as selling points to become a driver. Many companies are already putting these perks on the table, and still coming up short for quality hires. What will it take for tens of thousands of commercial drivers to sign up annually just to keep up with the increased shipping demands?

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