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How flatbed can pivot to offset peak-season disruption, keep drivers moving

Interview with Bill Hershey, PGT Trucking’s director, project cargo division

Historically, spring and summer is flatbed trucking’s busiest season, collectively pushing to supply the likes of Lowe’s and Home Depot with their mulch, bricks and lumber. During fall and winter months, especially peak retail season, flatbed carriers can find ways to pivot to keep drivers paid and on the road. While seasonality in flatbed trucking is flattening out, specifically for carriers that maintain a broad and diverse customer base, many still find alternate ways to utilize their drivers and power units during peak retail season.

This year’s peak retail season is bound to be one of the tightest on record due to the elevated import levels and congestion on the rails, according to a recent SONAR white paper. Spot rates, already 20% higher than 2020 levels, will face additional inflationary pressure, as retail sales exceed expectations. September sales alone were up 13.5% year-over-year. 

Truckstop.com’s national spot rate shows near all-time highs. FreightWaves SONAR. TSTOPVRPM.USA, 2021 (blue), 2020 (green) and 2019 (orange)

“Where we have available capacity, we offer our power units to the big peak-season shippers like Walmart, FedEx and Amazon that have a formalized program for recruiting power-only trucks and drivers,” said Bill Hershey, director, project cargo division at PGT Trucking. “Typically, that work may be just repositioning empty dry van trailers, but for others, you’re hauling and delivering loads from a distribution center to a store. It would seem like a no-brainer to move drivers to these customers during peak-season, but our team strategically plans the loads to ensure enough capacity is available to service our consistent flatbed customers as well.”

Hershey said that typically, up to 10% of PGT’s drivers may pivot to dry van for the winter months, and with that transition come several safety considerations. Flatbed drivers are offered additional training, as many aren’t accustomed to the 53-foot length or the 13-foot, 6-inch height of the dry van trailer versus the smaller dimensions of a flatbed. They must use caution driving on roads with low bridges and making tight maneuvers.

“Typically, we don’t own the dry van trailer, so our drivers are coached on performing a detailed pre-trip inspection on it, making sure they are comfortable and that it meets all DOT specifications,” said Hershey. “If there’s a problem on the road, contact is made with the customer, and they must take responsibility for their equipment, which is different from when these drivers are pulling PGT-owned flatbed trailers.”

Because the flatbed drivers hauling peak-season dry van trailers are often outsiders to the operation, they may not always get the most convenient pick up or delivery time slots. For example, drivers accustomed to working during the day may be hauling at night. However, PGT prioritizes home time for it’s drivers and works to accommodate schedules. 

Besides transitioning to hauling dry van trailers, there are opportunities for flatbed drivers to alleviate the congestion at the ports, which is a growing issue within the industry. While it’s possible to put a container directly onto a flatbed, Hershey said the ports and rail terminals have strict policies and procedures that make that difficult unless you have container locks. 

“Several customers with flatbed-friendly freight typically ship inside of a container all the way to their end customer, but with the shortage of chassis and drayage companies, they are paying to have that cargo stripped at the port, putting the cargo on a flatbed, and leaving the container behind,” said Hershey. 

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, PGT got its start hauling 80% steel commodities, so seasonality heavily affected its operation. However, PGT’s sales team has maintained a diverse and large enough customer base to keep drivers on the road year-round and therefore insulated from the peaks and valleys we often see in trucking. 

“Something is always in season somewhere, right? In the winter, in the Northeast, you can always haul salt. In the spring, you’ve got landscape materials and mulch. There are certain commodities that are always moving: aluminum for your beverage cans, tin plate for canned food. We are also mobile. If there is a lack of freight in one part of the country, send the trucks to where the freight is. If drivers want to maintain a consistent paycheck, you have to do what you have to do. By having a large customer base, we can adapt.”

Because PGT pays its drivers by percentage, when freight rates are high, drivers earn more money. With this year’s high demand for capacity, drivers took home an extra $10,000 on average. Hershey doesn’t see rates contracting until the middle of next year.

“You’ve got to make hay when the sun’s out and that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “Customers aren’t arguing. They need to move the freight. Everyone’s profits seem to be in a good position, so they don’t mind paying more. These drivers deserve it, too. It’s not an easy job, especially flatbed.”

The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes FedEx (No. 1) and PGT Trucking (No. 83).

Corrie White

Corrie is fascinated how the supply chain is simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. She covers freight technology, cross-border freight and the effects of consumer behavior on the freight industry. Alongside writing about transportation, her poetry has been published widely in literary magazines. She holds degrees in English and Creative Writing from UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Greensboro.