The outpouring of appreciation for truck drivers during the coronavirus pandemic runs from President Donald Trump’s Twitter account to free roadside lunches and thank-you posters scrawled in crayon by young children.
But will the good feelings remain or fade into memory when the health crisis passes?
“A lot will depend on how long this continues,” Rebecca Brewster, president of the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), told FreightWaves. “Those of us in the industry are so gratified to see young kids holding up signs thanking truck drivers. As we see more of that and it gets into our collective understanding, it will be cemented into our memories.”
Such adulation is rare during disasters like tornadoes or hurricanes, when grocery shelves empty but are quickly restocked because of the focus on a single town or region. Temporary disruptions are quickly forgotten, especially when property and other losses take priority.
“In my 19 years of driving, this is the first time I’ve seen such a positive light shown on the trucking industry,” said Jimmy Nevarez, owner of Angus Transportation, a three-truck carrier based in Phelan, California. “It is under the microscope right now because so many places are pumping up trucking as the lifeblood of the supply chain.”
One trucking executive questions whether the crisis will create a permanent change.
“I hope that drivers remember how important they are, but sadly I think the public will forget,” said Jeff Shefchik, president of Paper Transport Inc. (PTI) in De Pere, Wisconsin. “When life gets really hard, that’s when you see who is valuable.”
Time to shine
The American Trucking Associations’ mantra — “If you bought it, a truck brought it” — rings truer than ever.
“All these drivers are out there doing their job, keeping the country moving,” Shefchik said. “No matter how much of this country shuts down, they are never going to shut down.”
Nevarez said truckers need to recognize the public is seeing them in a different light.
“I emphasize to my friends that right now is the time to shine,” he said.
It is also the time for carriers to show drivers how important they are, said Tim Hindes, co-founder and CEO of Stay Metrics, a trucking consulting firm that tracks driver retention.
“This is when [truckers] and their families are watching the carriers,” Hindes said. “Are they giving them the protection equipment? Do they care about their well-being or are they just pushing them out there like cattle?
“Let your drivers know they are safe in your system and show them you’ve got their back,” he said. “That’s where I think there is a tremendous opportunity for carriers to position themselves as pro-driver.”
Hudson, Illinois-based Nussbaum Transportation Services Inc. allows drivers concerned about contracting the coronavirus to stay home. Only eight of 410 drivers are doing so, CEO Brent Nussbaum said.
“We should be proving ourselves all year long,” Nussbaum said in response to Hindes’ challenge. “We want to protect any drivers that have COVID-19. A few are quarantined because of symptoms. Our goal is to educate them about health and safety first.”
Shefchik said his drivers are provided with gloves, cleaning solutions, towels and whatever else the company can get to help with safe operation.
“In some cases, it is taking us longer than we would like,” he said.
Good will is welling up in many ways across the industry.
PTI is donating half its profits in April, a minimum of $100,000, to coronavirus-related causes. The company gives to charities every month, but “this is different,” Shefchik said.
Making his donation public challenges other local businesses. So far, he said, one is pledging $100,000.
“This was kind of an impulse thing,” Shefchik said. “[Our drivers] are grateful to still have a job and we want to do something.”
Nevarez said he sees less bad behavior within the industry.
“Freight rates are staying relatively stable and there’s not a lot of gouging going on,” he said. “Not only are we seeing the positive light from the general public that we’re servicing, but we’re seeing it from customers and brokerages. These guys aren’t jacking up the rates. They’re still making a profit, but they’re not sticking it to us.”
Only about 40% of the freight that typically criss-crosses the nation is moving, as stay-at-home orders and the shuttering of businesses deemed nonessential generate financial losses with each day of the pandemic.
When the economy recovers, some jobs in small businesses such as restaurants and coffee shops may not be part of it.
“One thing positive that people will remember is that there are a lot of [trucking] jobs out there,” Nussbaum said. “People are going to come away with a new perspective. We should send a message that this is a stable industry.”
The pandemic will accelerate driver retirements in a profession in which the average age is 55, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“There is a certain percentage of drivers we are going to lose in the industry because of this,” Hindes said. “It was time for people [to retire] and they are going to retire a little bit earlier.”
That means opportunities abound, the ATRI’s Brewster said.
“People who would not have considered [the trucking industry] would consider it,” she said. “Given all the attention the supply chain is getting, I hope it awakens in folks an understanding of how many opportunities there are within the industry, not just as drivers.”