February 13, 2012
Column | basic training

Solutions to driver shortage elusive

Higher pay and expanded training won't be enough. What we need is a comprehensive strategy and the committed engagement of industry and governmental players ... and maybe another look at immigration.

By Art van Bodegraven and Kenneth B. Ackerman

Yeah, yeah—we've heard this song before. It hasn't been all that long since the Chicken Littles of the industry were running in circles, squawking about impending doom—specifically, a looming shortage of warehouse workers.

With a bit of training and improved wage structures (i.e., above minimum but less than website developers), that problem seemed to solve itself. To be sure, demand remains high in logistics hot spots, and workforce development is a high priority in those locales.

We had miraculously escaped that catastrophe when the Jeremiahs began to rant about another impending shortage—this time involving truck drivers. And not without cause. Given the aging driver population (currently, the average age of over-the-road drivers is over 55) and the difficulty attracting new people to the field—not to mention the prospect of burgeoning freight volumes—it's probably no surprise that we began hearing projections of a shortage roughly equivalent to the combined capacities of the Ohio Stadium and the Rose Bowl.

Then came the economic meltdown of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession, which collapsed the demand for truck drivers and erased the expected shortfall nearly overnight. We began to breathe easier. Like Jessica Tandy's Miss Daisy, we saw only the things we chose to see, and we interpreted what we saw in the light of mysterious factors known only to ourselves.

The problem was solved, never mind if only for a moment. Perhaps if we squeezed our eyes tightly shut, a tornado would not come our way again. If it did, it would spare the barn. The trolls would go back to living under the bridge, and the monsters under the bed would not dare venture out to get us in the night.

Welcome to 2012
The recession is over and has been for a while, except in certain verticals. Goods are moving through the supply chain at levels approaching those of 2007. Guess what? There is a shortage of truck drivers, and it's looking as if we'll need at least three stadia worth of drug-free individuals with commercial driver's licenses (CDLs)—now.

But we don't know where to get them. And the factors that were limiting our ability to maintain a stable driver supply, let alone grow it, are still with us, in spades. They include the following:

  • Pay is essentially piecework, so many cents per mile
    • Traffic delays and wait time at pickup and delivery points consume a greater number of a driver's hours, reducing his (or her) mileage potential
    • Federal HOS (hours of service) regulations, while well-intentioned, have the effect of reducing miles by capping daily work hours
  • Quality of life: time away from family, diet and recreation on the road, long hours
  • Wages that do not fully compensate for time and effort, leading drivers to change employers for trivial per-mile amounts—or leave the field altogether
  • The investment (indebtedness) and payback involved in the owner-operator model
  • A negative perception of the field, its current population, and the lifestyle—in short, the lack of an aspirational image that involves honest work by decent people for fair wages
  • Late entry as the only option for getting in. The high school graduate has already been working some three years in another field before being eligible for consideration as an interstate driver. In addition, there are training requirements to consider in making a career shift.
  • The CSA 2010 (Compliance, Safety, Accountability) program, the federal government's far-reaching initiative to remove unsafe commercial drivers from the nation's roads. This has not yet had a major negative effect on the driver supply, but it has reportedly caused some unease in the driver community.
  • The added scrutiny of on-board monitoring systems. Some companies report that drivers like the systems, but it is another "eye in the sky" that can un-nerve independent spirits.

Not a pretty picture. Yet we must address the grievances and find workable remedies.

And what are we doing about it?
Shipping more by rail. Maybe. The railroads certainly hope so. And significant growth is projected for rail and intermodal traffic over the next few years. But drayage is still needed at both ends of a long-distance rail or intermodal movement.

Paying more. This was one of the late Don Schneider's focal points, and many carriers are nudging rates up, penny by penny, nickel by nickel, in order to raise wages.

Arranging for more, and more regular, off-the-road time. Some companies have been more aggressive in pursuing this than others, and there are inevitable costs involved.

Developing conscious programs to treat drivers with respect, openness, and trust.

Partnering with driving schools to establish relationships with prospective drivers before they finish, and to be a preferred destination for the schools to steer graduates. A few companies are trying this. A very few workforce development agencies in logistics hotspots are integrating with driving schools to begin to address the problem on a regional basis.

Creating win-win-win solutions by hiring military veterans with appropriate driving experience, and recognizing their military experience as part of their total experience rather than taking them on as rookies. There is interest in doing this in a few locales, but it will take collaboration and alignment among a number of agencies, including carriers, veterans' affairs bureaus, and insurers, at a minimum.

Permitting more extensive driving duties at younger ages (say, 19 versus 21) to capture more people at the beginning of their careers rather than trying to "convert" them later on. This again requires collaboration with carriers and insurers, as well as careful monitoring of individual progress.

There is surely more going on in the real world, but these illustrate what's happening.

And what's wrong with that?
Nothing, really, except that all those toes in the water aren't nearly the same as swimming the English Channel, and that's what we've got to figure out how to do. We can all learn from the successes and failures of local and company-specific initiatives. We do need a forum to get the word out, though.

Too many of the company-focused initiatives are designed more to steal drivers from the competition than to enlarge the total driver pool, which is what is needed.

The big things, engaging returning veterans and having younger drivers, definitely need coordination—and action rather than endless study—at a national level. It's a national problem; it will take a national solution.

But in our opinion, solving the driver shortage is too big to simply peck away at and hope for the best. It demands a comprehensive strategy and the committed engagement of industry and governmental players. And it shouldn't be delayed for years while environmental impact studies are conducted in Washington.

We don't have a Harry Potter answer; we left the magic wand back at the office. But we do know that our profession and our economic success require all hands on deck to work on a comprehensive and sustainable solution. We can't count on another recession to take the pressure off.

An ironic afterthought
We do have a sneaking suspicion that the ultimate solution to the driver shortage could involve immigration, possibly on a couple of levels.

Consider the positive impact in Europe of, for example, truck drivers from the high-unemployment CEE (Central and Eastern Europe) nations relieving human capacity pressures in fully loaded warehousing and transportation sectors in "Old" Europe. Could we use a few thousand Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, or Slovaks here in trucking?

Then, contemplate the labor force just beyond our Southern border. Would it not be interesting if we suddenly had Mexicans arriving with jobs in hand and not needing the services of coyotes to get across the border? The IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters), among others, was not keen, post-NAFTA, about Mexican trucks on U.S. roads. Might they feel differently about Mexican drivers in U.S. trucks?

For those who might decry bringing in immigrants to perform relatively prosaic tasks, here's reality. The currently unemployed are possibly not capable of, not qualified for, or not interested in driving trucks—or else they would already be on the road somewhere.

Might some be retrained? Possibly, but at what cost (and to whom), at what career stage, and in what numbers? Enough to make a dent in the shortage? Highly unlikely. And we suspect that even Miss Daisy might come—in time—to approve of the strangers in her midst.

Art van Bodegraven, president of Van Bodegraven Associates, may be reached at (614) 893-9414. He blogs for DC Velocity at The Art of Art.

More articles by Art van Bodegraven

Kenneth B. Ackerman, president of The Ackerman Company, can be reached at (614) 488-3165.
More articles by Kenneth B. Ackerman

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