The Great Truck Driver Shortage
Wondering where all the good truckers have gone? Transportation expert Tim Higham explains why increased traffic, new laws and stiff competition mean growers have to get creative to keep from driving away their drivers.
August 2, 2012
You probably got into trucking by complete accident. You started growing or brokering plants and all of a sudden, you were in the trucking business too! How did that happen? Don’t worry, you are not alone; I ask myself the same question every day.
As with all of the challenges we face each day, except for the drain on cash part, the actual physical trucks aren’t really the problem. No, the real problem is the drivers, or rather, the lack of good ones.
There is good reason for this shortage — and it is getting worse.
People are getting older. This seems obvious, but what I mean is that the general population is getting older, and a lot of the good old drivers of the past are retiring or close to retirement. Typically these empty seats would be filled by new drivers entering the market. The problem is, nobody wants to be a driver anymore.
Studies by the American Trucking Association, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and other trade groups show that becoming a truck driver is about as alluring as a new military recruit getting posted to Afghanistan as a first deployment. It sounded good on paper, but when reality sets in, young people don’t want to be truck drivers.
Our population is rising, and road congestion increases because of it. Traffic jams are commonplace (and getting worse), and the government can’t pass the Department of Transportation (DOT) bill to improve things. This transportation bill is usually one of the easiest to pass through Congress.
Even the government is happy to tell us all how much worse traffic congestion is going to get in the next few decades. It is like getting a new job in an office and having to share your space with three people on your first day, only to be told that you will have seven or eight people in your office in the coming years. You may decide to look for another line of work.
Most of you who read my columns know that I just love the government and hope they interfere with more areas of the industry. For those new to my columns, that last comment was sarcasm. I could go on and on about several of the government’s ideas, but I am going to point out only one. In fact, I am about to inform you of one of the most amazing government-suggested rules that will pass Congress in 2013.
The rule is that drivers will need to pass a medical exam and obtain a medical card in order to get a commercial driver’s license (CDL) or to renew one. Now, on the surface of it, this sounds like a great idea. Even I thought so. However, what the government seems to think is healthy for a driver is a lot different than reality. Several proposals say that a driver has to have a body mass index (BMI) of less than 30, which would mean the driver is no more than just overweight.
I am 5’9” and weigh 227 pounds. My BMI is 33. According to the government, I am obese, but I wear 36-inch pants, run and play soccer on the weekends and work out a couple of times a week. Trust me, I am pretty fit for a 44-year-old male. But the government says I am obese — and to get a commercial driver’s license my doctor would need to provide me with a written course of action that I must follow to get my BMI to “healthy” in a set period of time — or I won’t get my CDL renewed.
I don’t know about your drivers, but most of mine would never, and don’t want to, pass this test. They will just walk away from the industry, retire or claim disability. Even if they wanted to renew their CDL, most of my drivers (like yours) are not the type to work toward “buns of steel” and go on a low-calorie diet. Heck, they are truck drivers. They sit in one place all day, every day. Of course they are overweight.
What happened to the driver that was willing to tailgate as part of the job and didn’t expect to get paid more for doing it? Where are the drivers willing to take a 15-stop load and merchandise the product? Yes, there are a few, but many drivers have been spoiled by the proliferation of regional trucking and distribution center loads where “one drop, one pick, no touch” is the mantra.
As soon as a driver has experienced this world of nirvana, our freight is the bottom of the list. A driver I interviewed the other day told me, “All I do is drive. Everything else is extra, and you need to give me the help to do it.” He was unemployed at the time, and I bet he is still unemployed.
There is a driver shortage. We all know this. It is also getting worse quickly. The good drivers want, and get, the easiest freight, the best pay, a sign-on bonus, regional freight (long haul freight was so last decade), benefits and new equipment. And once you sit in a brand new cab, it is hard to go back. The large national and regional carriers can offer so much more than we lowly growers — and they are working hard to secure all the good drivers.
This trend won’t change in our lifetimes, so we have to manage through the issues and be creative. We need to pay well and set realistic driver expectations. Increase pay for employment longevity, which works well for us, and look at your delivery circles and decide what your drivers should and will do. Let them do those tasks to keep them happy and outsource the rest to a third-party logistics provider or trucking company.
ind out what matters to your drivers. Some want to be home every night, and others actually want to be away for a night or two each week. If you give them what they feel is important, they may stay. You can also be creative by, say, letting a driver come into the office to dispatch the other trucks every other month, so all the drivers rotate out of the truck occasionally. Or, pay driver incentives for the actions you want to promote, such as better merchandising, lower claims and damage, more empty rack returns, etc.
Letting a driver know that he or she is so much more than just a driver is empowering. Let them know they are the face of the company. I have seen drivers stay at a company and even recruit friends because they got a simple uniform and were told they were in the customer service department.
Who else can better represent you than a happy, smiling, uniformed driver that loves his driving job?
Tim Higham is the CEO of Interstate Logistics Group, the largest dedicated logistics provider to the horticultural market. You can eMail him at thigham@InterstateLG.com. Learn more at InterstateLG.com or call toll free at 866-281-1281 x1323.