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In ATRI top 10 list, some big differences between drivers and management

Parking and fuel prices show that some issues out on the road aren’t as important for the C-suite

Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There were few surprises in the list of the top trucking industry issues released Sunday by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), but what is always most intriguing about this list is the difference in perception between drivers and company managers.

In a survey that had more than 2,500 respondents, the driver shortage was listed as the top concern in the overall rankings. Second was driver retention and third was driver compensation. The trifecta of concerns all relate to the same issue: putting people behind the wheel to drive the truck.

But it is the side-by-side comparison of the driver responses and the motor carrier responses that spells out some stark differences in what’s important to drivers versus management. This is not all that surprising; drivers are paid to do one thing and management is paid to utilize those drivers to do another. They are not necessarily supposed to have identical views.

The results were released at the annual Management Conference & Exhibition of the American Trucking Associations, of which ATRI is an arm. It is the first MCE conference in two years.

Where the difference between the two segments of the industry is so striking, this year and in previous years, is with the issue of truck parking. Among truck drivers, the issue of parking was tied for first on the list of top issues, along with driver compensation. But the motor carriers? It didn’t even crack the top 10.

This could be in part because the truck parking issue is tied up in a host of private sector and government decisions on how much parking to provide and how to make it happen. What a private company can do about it is limited. 

But given that this issue is clearly making drivers unhappy, the gap in the ranking of the issues is striking. 

As ATRI President and COO Rebecca Brewster said at the MCE session regarding the list, “we’re forcing our professional drivers to sleep on the side of the road because there is not enough parking.”

Hayden Cardiff, the CEO and founder of truck management platform Idelic and a member of the ATRI-sponsored group that conducted the research, said the lack of parking is also putting law enforcement personnel “between a rock and a hard place.” It is the duty of the police to enforce laws on where trucks can or can not park, but they also know that truckers need to sleep and rest, Cardiff said. Yet truck drivers constantly live with the anxiety of “am I going to get a tap on my door in the middle of the night by sometime trying to enforce the law,” Cardiff said.

That there is a limit to what individual companies can do to create more parking was evident in ATRI’s proposed solutions, released in conjunction with its top 10 list. All of them involve some level of government activity: creating a new federal fund designed to construct new parking, an effort that failed earlier this year; encouraging local governments to reduce regulations that slow the construction of parking; and advocating for states to supply more real-time information on parking availability.

Other divergent rankings between drivers and company personnel reflected differing perceptions of the issues facing the industry. For example, soaring fuel prices were third on the list of drivers but not in the top 10 for carrier responses. (Of all responses, about 25% were from drivers, Brewster said.)

Brewster said the responses to the survey included a significant number of owner-operators who particularly expressed concern about fuel prices. Owner-operators generally book rates that do not have a fuel surcharge in them, seeking instead for a rate that will cover the cost of diesel. 

Hugh Ekberg, president and CEO of carrier CRST International and a member of the ATRI survey team, noted that for companies that hit customers with a fuel surcharge, the surcharge tends to smooth out some of the pain from rising prices, “but stability is the key. When they are moving is when they disrupt our cost structure.”

A year ago, the Department of Energy/Energy Information Administration average retail diesel price was $2.388 per gallon. It currently stands at $3.671 per gallon. The price has risen in 40 of the last 52 weeks. 

One item that made the top 10 list for the first time was a diesel technician shortage, coming in at 10th place. A little more than 4% of all respondents listed it as their No. 1 concern.

ATRI, in its report on possible solutions to the various issues of the top 10, cited three potential courses of action to address the need for more diesel mechanics. The first is to “encourage collaboration between motor carriers and local community colleges/tech schools to promote technician training and placement.” The second is to “conduct research to quantify the scope and cause of current technician shortages and develop best practices for technician recruitment and retention.” The third is to work with the U.S. Department of Labor to specifically recruit veterans into the field. 

Among some of the other issues along with comments from panelists:

Insurance cost/availability, 9th overall: “It’s a much bigger cost of our operating business. Most of you are like us,” Ekberg said. “The accident frequency is going down but insurance costs are going up.”

Infrastructure congestion/funding, 8th overall: Brewster said ATRI’s research revealed that what was an eight-minute trip across the I-40 bridge that spanned the Mississippi until it was shut down by safety concerns became an 84-minute trip.

Detention/delay at customer facilities, 7th overall: Bill Hambrick, a driver for Werner (NASDAQ: WERN), said the issue is one that impacts many other concerns, such as driver retention. “What it does to the driver is that it creates less pay and more stress, and that is what the driver has to deal with,” he said. 

Lawsuit abuse reform: Brewster said this issue had not been a top 10 item on the ATRI survey for 10 years. Ekberg said of the lawsuit issue: “This may not be the No. 1 issue for me, but it is the No. 1 source of frustration because it doesn’t make sense.”

The top 10 issues overall from the survey:

  1. Driver shortage
  2. Driver retention
  3. Driver compensation
  4. Lawsuit abuse reform
  5. Truck parking
  6. Compliance, safety, accountability
  7. Detention/delay at customer facilities
  8. Transportation infrastructure
  9. Insurance cost/availability
  10. Diesel technician shortage

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.