Using the traditional trailer placards to advertise for qualified truck drivers is no longer enough. Trucking companies have resorted to renting highway billboard space to attract prospective drivers. As one wag put it, "The next step is for the carriers to get down on their knees and beg."
If current trends continue, supplication may become necessary. Last month's report from the American Trucking Associations (ATA) showing that the long-haul truckload segment is short nearly 48,000 drivers—the biggest deficit on record—and could be short a lot more in the next one to two years even if the economy just marginally improves, reaffirms what we've known for years. The fact that the report got play in the popular press reflects a broader awareness of what it means for the nation to lack drivers. That may get some previously unaware (and unemployed) people interested.
But increased media exposure won't move the needle any more than what's already been tried. Higher wages haven't done it, and likely never will in a meaningful way. Promises of more home time won't do it; in fact, ATA said that fleets have probably gone as far as they can to reduce lengths of haul and, by extension, increase home time.
It's time to rethink the game plan and to take small bites that, when aggregated, could make a difference. After all, the shortage of drivers is a means to an end. The challenge is ensuring companies get their goods to market even with a shrinking work force.
For example, if each of the nation's 3.4 million drivers could boost their productivity by 30 minutes a day, that would add 1.7 million miles to the road. That won't come from government fiat. It will come from better planning and scheduling by shippers.
Fleets could give their drivers more skin in the game. Shouldn't drivers have more say in the type of equipment that carriers buy or lease? And why can't company-employed drivers accompany salespeople on customer calls? It would make drivers feel more engaged and would drive home the point to customers that the carrier was committed to a true partnership.
Other steps (on which we've reported) include federal legislation to extend the length limit on twin trailers by five feet each, which would yield an 18-percent increase in cube for each run. Another modest improvement would be to allow people between ages 18 and 21 to operate a commercial vehicle in interstate commerce, providing it is reciprocal between neighboring states and is closely supervised; folks between those ages today can obtain a commercial driver's license to drive within the states where they reside, but they cannot operate across state lines. This means a young driver can run 500 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but not 132 miles from Sacramento to Reno, Nev.
Still another is legislation in the House of Representatives to allow doctors from the Veterans Administration to perform Department of Transportation (DOT)-sanctioned medical exams on honorably discharged or released military veterans looking to become truck drivers, providing the physicians are familiar with federal commercial driving fitness requirements and have never fraudulently awarded a medical certificate. Current federal regulations allow practitioners to perform DOT physicals only after they've undergone a costly and time-consuming certification process. Only a fraction of otherwise qualified physicians have completed the certification process, forcing applicants of all stripes to sit in limbo. Given that ATA is pushing the trucking industry to hire 100,000 veterans over the next year, such a change is sensible and necessary.
Each change, on its own, won't flood the market with qualified drivers. Yet taken together, they will better leverage the driver work force we have and give the industry a chance to slowly reverse what now appears to be an irreversible trend.