July 1, 2006
enroute | National Motor Freight

A little R-E-S-P-E-C-T

a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T

They can deal with the congested roads and inclement weather. What America's truck drivers really want is a little you know what at the loading dock.

By Peter Bradley

Duwayne Marshall still shakes his head at the recollection. The veteran truck driver was making a delivery to a DC run by one of the world's largest retailers. He'd arrived half an hour before his appointment only to be delayed at the gate to the yard. "I sat at the gate for two hours, then was told I was late," he recalls. "When I said I was at the gate, they said it was not their problem."

Marshall relates his story with more resignation than indignation. After a quarter century on the job, he harbors no illusions about life behind the wheel of a big rig. It's a tough way to make a living, he admits. There are the lengthy absences from home—he recalls arriving at his child's graduation with only minutes to spare. And the compensation can be paltry. Some brokers offer as little as 82 cents a mile, he says. "It's hard to pay for a truck with that."And, of course, there are the difficult customers.

Yet for all the frustrations,Marshall, who bought his first rig in 1981 when he was 21, has no plans to abandon his lifelong career. "I still enjoy the driving," he says. "That's one of the reasons I'm still out here."

Not all drivers are willing to stick with the business, however. At trucking companies across the country, the revolving door is spinning so fast it's become a blur. Disenchantment with the lengthy absences from home, prolonged delays at the dock and lack of respect from customers pushed driver turnover rates in the truckload sector to record levels last year. Statistics from the American Trucking Associations show that in 2005, the large truckload carriers experienced average turnover of 130 percent, which is the highest annual rate on record.

Replacing those departing workers is becoming increasingly difficult, particularly for truckload haulers. Despite their efforts to make the job more attractive (see sidebar), truckers looking for help face tough competition from industries like construction, which offer comparable wages without the so-called "lifestyle issues." "We're feeling the effects of the driver shortage more than we ever have," says Robert Reich, vice president of enterprise recruiting for giant truckload hauler Schneider National.

It's not just company drivers who are heading for the exits. Some of the independents are getting out as well. Soaring fuel and insurance costs have taken a serious financial toll on these owneroperators, who both drive trucks and manage their own business.With little prospect of relief, some are concluding that the money's simply not worth the aggravation.

Take Stephen Breslin, an owner-operator based in Massachusetts and a 26-year veteran of the highways. After running a small fleet for years (and eventually cutting back to a single tractor and trailer), he's considering hanging up his keys.

Trucking can be a brutally tough business for independents, says Breslin. Despite the current truck capacity shortage, brokers are offering loads for as little as a dollar a mile. That barely covers basic operating costs, says Breslin, who rattles off his estimate of an owner-operator's costs: 50 cents a mile for fuel, 20 cents a mile for a truck payment, 10 cents for insurance, 10 cents for maintenance."Then I have to pay myself something," he says, noting that an owner-operator may clear just $8 an hour after expenses.

Before long, the alternatives start looking pretty good."I can go to McDonald's for $12 an hour and they'll feed me," he says. "I'm not stuck in the middle of nowhere, and I don't have to pay for a truck, insurance or maintenance."

Trouble from the get go
While Breslin and Marshall may have reached different conclusions about their future in trucking, they agree on the major cause of driver frustration. And despite the popular perception, it's not the roads. For all the talk about highways in disrepair, erratic drivers, inclement weather and worsening traffic congestion, Marshall says that driving has not changed much during his career."Most of the guys still enjoy the driving."

What bothers drivers the most, they say, is the way they're treated at shippers' and consignees' docks."It's the loading and the unloading that's the problem," says Marshall. "Everyone is on their own schedule and we get caught in the middle."

The problems often start at the very outset of the trip, when the driver tries to schedule a delivery. Simply getting an appointment can be a nightmare, says Marshall. "One DC requires you to fax a request. Another has to have an e-mail. Another, you have to call, but they have one girl who makes 500 appointments for the week, so you're on hold for an hour."

Maddening as that may be, Marshall and Breslin agree that a driver's real problems begin when the truck arrives at a DC. There, it's likely to encounter delays that can last up to 12 hours. Making advance arrangements doesn't necessarily help, they say. Even with appointments, long waits are common.

Breslin, in fact, calls dock delays the biggest problem in the industry. "The waits are uncalled for, particularly at the food distributors," he says. He recalls waiting as long as nine hours at a grocery DC in the Northeast and still being told that no door was available. Another time, he says, the woman scheduling doors asked for a payoff to get him into a door.

In yet another instance, he waited seven hours to load a shipment of toys at a Northeast DC, then drove to a major retailer's DC in Virginia, where he waited 12 hours to unload. "I could not stay hooked and I couldn't stay bobtailed [with the tractor unhitched from the trailer] on the property. There was no waiting room," he says. "I had 19 hours of detention for 10 hours of driving."

Breslin is hardly the only driver to complain of interminable delays. Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), says his members report that they wait to unload at DCs for 33 to 43 hours every week. "The timeliness of when [a driver] gets to unload is determined by a host of factors," Spencer says, "not the least of which is whether the receiver wants or needs the product. The driver never actually knows if he's going to be there for two hours or 10 hours."

That's a serious problem for drivers like Marshall who carry multiple loads. Even a small delay can throw his entire schedule off. "If I'm delivering one pallet and I'm held up for two or three hours, that puts a big kink in my day," he says. "There's no cost to the warehouse to hold me for four or five hours. They don't care, but it makes me late for my next appointment. Now those guys are mad at me."

Not only will they be mad at him, they may fine him. The same DCs that fail to honor appointments with drivers won't hesitate to penalize them for late arrivals, Marshall says. "It is getting more and more abusive. They are costing me my efficiency in this market of literally pennies [of margin]."

Breslin agrees that it's the drivers who are inevitably shortchanged by delays, even if they're offered compensation for their time. "I could get $55 an hour hauling dirt in 1987," he says."Do you know what I'm offered for detention time? Twenty dollars an hour."

Whose job is it anyhow?
Once a driver gets in the door, his problems still aren't over. Loading/unloading woes are a universal complaint. Drivers say customers are quick to make demands of drivers—dictating, for example, exactly how they'd like the freight unloaded and the pallets broken down—but slow to offer assistance. "Now, they won't let us use the power equipment," Marshall says. "You can use a hand jack if you can find one, but [if a hand jack isn't immediately available], they'll tell you to go look for one."

Marshall suspects that some DCs deliberately make things difficult in order to pressure drivers into hiring lumpers, day laborers who load or unload trucks. He resists. "I get paid for unloading," he says. But they can make it hard to refuse, he notes. "They are not allowed to coerce you [to hire a lumper], but it has almost become that."

Spencer says the use of lumpers is widespread. "It is occurring again at big places that have unloading services supposedly independent of the receiver. It's a way for the receiver to lower costs by transferring the cost of labor to the truck driver."

Those costs can be considerable these days. In the past, drivers who agreed to use lumpers could pick from day laborers waiting around for jobs at a DC. Now, Marshall says, DCs often insist that drivers use a contracted lumper service that's on site. As you might expect, Marshall says, the lack of competition only drives up costs.

Try as they might to avoid it, drivers sometimes have no choice but to pay for unloading help. Marshall reports that Wal-Mart requires carriers to pay to have company employees unload the company's own freight. "According to one sign I read, driver unloading fees will pay the cost of warehouse help for the entire year," Marshall says. Spencer backs up his claim. Though most of the complaints he hears from OOIDA members are about grocery DCs, he says, he hears frequent complaints about Wal-Mart's unloading charges as well. (Phone calls to Wal-Mart requesting comment were not returned.)

Even after the truck has been unloaded, a driver's troubles may not be over. Marshall says some of the largest DCs have too few employees assigned to receiving. "In one, there's one guy checking in 30 doors. Even when you're unloaded, it's hard to get someone to sign." He says in one case, he made a delivery of 54 boxes of cheese. As he finished, the receiver went to lunch. "He said, 'I don't make the appointments. That's another department.'"

The hours
For a while, it looked as if things might be looking up for drivers. In early 2004, new driver hours of service (HOS) regulations took effect that promised to change the economics of the business. The new rule (which has since been overturned in court, revised and reissued and remains under challenge) stipulates that a driver must go off duty after 14 hours, then take 10 hours off. In contrast to the past, drivers are no longer allowed to go "off the clock" during non-driving periods—while waiting around to unload, for example.

In the first months after the new rule took effect, there was much talk among shippers and carriers of improving dock operations to keep drivers from running up against their time limits. But Breslin insists he has seen no change. "It's just as bad as it ever was," he maintains.

Worse yet, the new regulations sometimes put drivers in an untenable position. Breslin says he's heard accounts of drivers who reached the end of their shifts while delayed at a customer's facility. The customers then insisted that the driver leave or risk a trespassing charge, forcing the driver to go on the road in violation of the hours of service rule.

Though Breslin says he has not faced that dilemma himself, Marshall reports that he's run into that situation. Twice a month, he runs refrigerated food to DCs on the West Coast. One wants an early morning delivery of chilled products. The other wants a 6 p.m. appointment. "If he holds me two hours, I'm at the edge of my hours. I can't go anywhere, but I can't stay on the property."

Early morning deliveries present a particular problem for drivers. Many times, DCs will not allow a driver who arrives the night before an appointment onto the property until scheduled. "If some of these places had a bull pen, you could go in the night before and get your 10 hours," says Marshall. "But so many places won't let you in, or the community won't. It puts quite a strain on guys."

Despite this bleak picture, Spencer, for one, holds out hope that DCs can still be persuaded to make changes in their operations. Better adherence to schedules would do more than just make drivers' lives easier, he argues. It could be a giant step toward tackling some of the nation's thorny logistics problems. "If all the wasted time were eliminated, the industry would be more productive," he says. "[A]nd maybe we'd need fewer drivers, the industry would be more profitable, and there would be lower transportation costs."

Talkin' 'bout a new generation
For all the problems, there will always be those who can't resist the lure of the open road. One of them is Marshall. After all these years, Marshall says he still loves to drive and has no plans to turn in his rig—a 2007 Kenworth tractor and a five-year-old 48-foot refrigerated trailer.

Still, Marshall acknowledges that he's had an easier time than many drivers. He leases his rig to a non-asset LTL carrier in Wisconsin, under an arrangement that has him running regular routes. "In some ways, I'm very lucky," he says. "I see the same guys twice a month, and they treat me pretty well."

Another satisfied driver is Steve Bardsley, a 28-year veteran of the business. "I've not lost any of my enthusiasm," he says.

For the past 18 years, Bardsley has worked for Con-way Freight, a regional and national LTL carrier. For the first nine years, he drove linehauls; for the past nine, he's been a pickup and delivery driver in the Reno, Nev., area. Both types of driving have their pros and cons, he says. The linehaul assignments kept him away from home for long stretches, but he enjoyed being out on the road. The pickup and delivery work keeps him on a shorter leash, but he says he finds the customer contact satisfying. "I really like the interaction with customers," he says. "Even the ones [who] are not real friendly finally break down."

Like Marshall, Bardsley concedes that he's been more fortunate than many drivers. "I have seen some of the truckload guys wait for hours to get unloaded," he says. "But they usually have doors waiting for us." He adds that he calls mostly on small accounts with only a few (if any) receiving doors.

In the meantime, people continue to be drawn to the industry. One newcomer is George Martinez, who joined Schneider National's dedicated division as a driver in March. Martinez is unfazed by the stories he's heard about loading docks. After two decades in the restaurant business, he says, dealing with one customer at a time is refreshing.

Martinez finds the experience of driving exhilarating. "It is really cool," he says. "I used to be stuck in buildings for 10 to 13 hours a day. Now here I [am] driving a big old truck."

Martinez does say he's found the time away from home to be a drawback. Yet on the whole, he finds the challenges of the job more than manageable. "It's pretty simple if you just follow from A to B to C," he says. "I think problems occur when you skip a step."

As for the financial rewards, he says he's confident he can make a good living as a truck driver and expects to be in the business for a while. He hopes at the end of his first year to purchase his own tractor and then sign back on with Schneider as an owner-operator.

Drivers like Martinez may help bring about changes in the industry. He expresses great confidence in his ability to work with people on the docks. "I'm used to dealing with people," he says. "You can win people over. You just have to make them believe that it's in their interest to help you."

Marshall credits younger drivers with beginning to force change. They refuse to put up with any grief at the dock, he says. "They'll say, 'You think I'm going to sit around for four or five hours and you're not going to pay me? I don't think so.'"

About the Author

Peter Bradley
Editor Emeritus
Peter Bradley is an award-winning career journalist with more than three decades of experience in both newspapers and national business magazines. His credentials include seven years as the transportation and supply chain editor at Purchasing Magazine and six years as the chief editor of Logistics Management.

More articles by Peter Bradley

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