Food distribution stands out as toughest in a tough industry, making it even more difficult to find new drivers.
Jeff Falzon says it’s never been easier to drive a truck than it is now. But driving one for a food distributor still remains one of the most challenging.
Falzon, a driver for Reinhart Foodservice for 10 years, started driving trucks when front axle brakes and power steering were unheard of. Now, his truck is loaded with computers and sensors.
“It’s state of the art now,” Falzon said. “Everything is computerized. The trucks literally drive themselves now. It’s come a long way.”
Despite advances in self-driving technology, food distribution still relies on human precision to negotiate tight city streets, narrow alleys, and backdoor truck ramps to supply grocery stores, restaurants and institutions.
The precision was on display at the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA) 33rd annual truck driving championship in Orlando this weekend. On top of a written exam and a pre-trip vehicle inspection, drivers maneuvered a course of hairpin turns, backed into cargo bays, drove through a tight lane demarcated by tennis balls , and stopped on a bullseye target.
Just over 130 drivers participated in this year’s championship. Reinhart Foodservice, a division of Reyes Holdings, brought a 29 of its drivers; Berkshire Hathaway’s (NYSE: BRK) McLane Foodservice Distribution brought 19; and US Foods (NYSE: USFD) and privately held Shamrock Foods each brought about ten drivers.
The drivers at the event amount to one-tenth of one percent of the total drivers in food distribution. But they are the “best of the best” said Mark D’Andrea, a fleet safety manager for Shamrock Foods.
Each company sends drivers that have competed in regional competitions for their respective companies. Still, IFDA received more applicants than it allowed to compete.
The truck driving competition is “a great way to recognize the unsung heroes in this industry the people that see the customer more than anyone else and operate in very difficult conditions,” said IFDA President Mark Allen.
Indeed, many drivers spoke of the physical labor demanded of drivers in food distribution. A 48 foot trailer may contain over 1,000 packages that have to be taken off a truck at multiple locations during a 14 hour shift.
The physicality of food distribution is such that many IFDA competitors stay in shape with hobbies such as triathlons, surfing and scuba diving.
“Your stopping at small restaurants, going up and down stairs,” Allen said. “Every piece of freight has to be touched. By the time a driver is fifty, they can’t physically do the job anymore so they have to move into management or something else.”
The average age of food distribution drivers is unclear. But Allen says it must be close to the industry wide average of 43.
As a result, one of IFDA’s main concerns is how to recruit more drivers. Allen says food distribution should appeal to drivers with families as most routes allow drivers to be home at night. The truck driving championship itself was well attended by wives, children and other family.
As for new drivers, IFDA is one of the groups that helped craft the DRIVE-Safe Act, which aims to let drivers between 18 and 21 years old to get a commercial drivers license through an extended apprenticeship program with a trucking company.
Allen is positive on the bill’s prospects, citing 72 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and a companion bill in the Senate.
Allen says his group is also planning to submit comments to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration over its proposed changes to the Hours of service requirements.
But the onus is on the industry and what it can do to attract and retain drivers. IFDA’s last survey of driver pay showed starting salaries of $63,000, close to the median U.S. income last year. Allen says he’s heard companies increasing pay 3% to 10% above those levels, on top of upfront bonuses and regular benefits packages.
Driver recruitment and retention is gaining more attention. On the company’s last earnings conference call, Sysco chief executive Thomas Bene said his company has “challenges filling driver roles in certain markets where the labor market's just very tight.
“We see regularly drivers being offered significant upfront incentives to join a company,” Bene said. “We’re having to do some of that same type of thing.”
With companies raising the ante for new drivers, the ultimate strategy may be further consolidation, said one executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. The industry remains too fragmented with major national distributors such as Sysco, US Foods and McLane duking it out with regional players. A more consolidated industry could have more pricing power and more sway in driver compensation.
“The customers will pit each company against one another over a penny,” the manager said.