They are the nomads of the american highway, spending long days on the road and long nights in their rigs. They don't know where tomorrow will take them until they've delivered a load and their dispatcher or broker has sent them on to the next job. Their pay depends entirely on how far they drive, but new restrictions regularly appear to slow them down or take them off the road for a while. They must share the highways with automobile drivers who clearly have no clue what it's like to maneuver a rig that's maxed out with 80,000 pounds of cargo.And,far too often,they're treated as nuisances by the very customers who count on them to pick up and deliver products.
It's no wonder then that the life of a truckload driver is one that many abandon quickly. Even those who stick with it switch companies frequently in hopes of earning a few cents more per mile or finding a more comfortable sleeper cab.
For the companies that hire those drivers, high employee turnover is as much a part of the job as pot holes or blown-out tires. During times of full employment, it's not uncommon for annual turnover to surpass 100 percent. In the last couple of years, high unemployment has helped ease the driver shortage. But now, new and tougher driver licensing rules, related to the crackdown on terrorism, could drain the pool of potential drivers once again. And in the meantime, other problems have cropped up: Shipments have sagged in a feeble economy. Insurance costs—liability insurance costs, in particular—have skyrocketed, as have state and local taxes. And if that weren't enough, Environmental Protection Agency rules mandating cleanerburning engines have kicked in. The new engines, truckers say, are more expensive and less efficient than older engines and are unproven to boot.
But, may be worst of all, diesel fuel prices, a major part of any truckload carrier's costs, have hit record highs in recent years. In mid-May, prices hovered around $1.44 a gallon, according to the Department of Energy, with little relief insight. That's up nearly 50 cents a gallon from levels reported just four years ago. Fifty cents doesn't sound like much unti l you consider that an 18-wheeler can burn up a gallon of diesel fuel in seven miles. According to Bill Graves, the new president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, "On average, for every 10-cent increase in the price of diesel fuel, 1,000 motor carriers will fail, and this figure only includes fleets with five trucks or more."
It's no wonder, then, that thousands of truckload carriers go under every year. And though many of those casualties have been small operations, the cumulative effect has been a semi-sized hole in the national truckload capacity.
That's not a loss shippers can afford. They're heavily dependent on truckload (TL) haulers. In this country, truckers bring just about everything to everybody - from cantaloupes to basketballs. When it comes to for-hire carriers operating in the United States, truckload carriers account for the bulk of the capacity.
Shippers need truckers—but more specifically, shippers need truckers in decent financial shape, operating efficiently and making good use of their assets. Though the relationship isn't always so direct , truckers' costs ultimately dictate the rates shippers pay. Taking steps to help truckers improve asset utilization and turn a respectable profit doesn't even have to cost shippers a thing. It can be as simple as helping trucks get in and out quickly and making sure everybody knows who's responsible for loading or unloading.
Yet at too many docks, shippers and receivers have let the truckers down, failing to make even the feeblest attempts to improve drivers' lives and carriers' profits. The efficiency of dock operations varies by industry, by carrier, by business and even by site, reports Martin Labbe, president and CEO of consulting firm Martin Labbe Associates. "Some … address the issues," he says, "and some could care less."
Frustrated truckers are trying to get the word out, educating their customers on the fine points of dock etiquette. One carrier that has been especially active in working with customers in an attempt to improve dock efficiency has been Schneider National, the nation's largest truckload carrier.
Wayne Lubner, vice president of driver relations for Schneider, agrees with Labbe that dock conditions vary widely. As he diplomatically puts it, "I would tell you that there are still a lot of individual differences between DCs. Some companies have done an outstanding job, with good turn times and safety practices and access [for drivers] to facilities like bathrooms."
But others just haven't caught on, he concedes. In many cases,he says, drivers report that "[t]urn times, safety practices and facilities are poor."
The problems aren't limited to time on the dock. For many drivers, a bigger problem is time wasted waiting just to get to the dock. At some sites, delays routinely stretch as long as six hours. That problem is sadly familiar to truckers like Schneider, Lubner says. "At one extreme, the driver gets in and out in the prescribed time and the driver is able to plan his time," he comments. "In the other 20 percent, you may get in on time, but there's no clear expectation of when he's going to get out. It creates havoc and service degradation for the next place we send the driver."
Delays that may be tolerable in a slow economy, he says, will quickly become intolerable when demand picks up. And when national TL capacity hits the inevitable crunch, giving carriers the upper hand, it's a sure bet that truckers will remember which shippers have treated them well … and which haven't.
They'll even have the data to back up their hunches. Schneider, like other major carriers with sophisticated management systems, can pinpoint which facilities and which customers create delays. In fact, Lubner admits that the carrier has 50 to 75 customers it keeps an eye on—customers that take five to six hours to turn around a truck.
Those customers, he says, risk being shut out when the economy finally begins its upward march. At some point, carriers' phone and T1 lines will be jammed with pleas from desperate shippers seeking someone to haul their freight. Those shippers that have made no attempt to become anyone's preferred customers are bound to be disappointed. Says Lubner, "They will have to understand that they'll fall to the bottom of the shipping order."