Is there really a shortage of qualified commercial truck drivers? Or are drivers just becoming really adept at choosing the loads they want and ignoring those they don't?
There is nothing new about drivers "kicking the tires" on the freight before they commit to revving up their own wheels. However, it appears that, more than ever before, drivers are looking before they leap. Scott Moscrip, founder and chairman of New Plymouth, Idaho-based Truckstop.com, one of the country's top three trucking load boards, said his site receives several million searches for far fewer trucks than are registered to log in. Put another way, the company estimated that 20 percent of driver visits to its site are just to look at the loads, not to make a truck available.
There is a sensible reason for that: These days, available trucks are like the hunky guy at the all-girls college. The mere sight of a truck on a load board often results in an avalanche of offers—many of them financially unattractive—that drivers understandably shy away from. Yet there is something afoot that goes beyond a basic supply-demand imbalance, Moscrip said. Today's drivers have access to a wide range of sophisticated, user-friendly technology that allows them to make smart calls about the loads available to them. In years past, a driver may have hauled a load into a market where the rates were good, only to find little lucre in the outbound direction. Now, with the software available to them, they can see both sides of the coin and act accordingly, Moscrip said.
"Owner-operators want to be in control. But today they're not in control of their logbooks. They aren't always in control of their pickups and deliveries," Moscrip said. "But now they have the ability to search and find the next job they want to do. They are more in control of their lives." He added that the technology has made drivers better negotiators, and has also benefitted shippers by helping them understand the true value of the markets where they deploy their loads.
There will always be geographic imbalances on the country's truck map. Hauls into Florida, which is a consuming state that's light on production, will always command good rates. By contrast, outbound runs from the Sunshine State will be less abundant and certainly less lucrative. Yet for the most part, there are enough drivers and trucks to move the nation's goods, and there is no shortage of individuals entering the business, experts contend. Moscrip said Truckstop is signing up about 1,000 carriers a month. He added that, for the first time since records have been kept, the average size of a truck fleet registering for authority with the federal government is one.
Jeff Tucker, president and CEO of Tucker Company Worldwide, a Haddonfield, N.J.-based third party logistics (3PL) provider, said one of the biggest untold stories in transportation is that more than 409,000 for-hire drivers have entered the field in the past four years, a 21-percent aggregate increase that brings the total number of drivers to more than 2.35 million. Of those, Tucker reckons that the number of fleets with 1 to 6 trucks grew 42 percent, fleets with 7 to 9 trucks grew 29 percent, and fleets with 20 to 100 trucks grew 22 percent. By contrast, the largest fleets—those with more than 501 trucks—grew by 10 percent, he said. "Every fleet size grew since 2012, but the clear winners of the driver war are the smaller and mid-size fleets," Tucker said in a recent blog on the company's website. He advised shippers to partner closely with smaller fleets and with the 3PLs that know how to reach them.
Moscrip echoed the sentiment about the dichotomy between small and large fleets. "As the economy grows, the big truckers are not," he said, indicating the big boys are leaving freight on the table because they don't have the folks to haul it.
Ken Harper, director, marketing and communications, at Portland, Ore.-based DAT Solutions, the second major load board (the third being Getloaded.com), said more carriers are posting on its boards at this time of year, a seasonally slow period for freight demand. Harper said the industry has added a record number of carriers over the past year, a trend that has extended into 2016. Most of the new entrants are owner-operators running dry vans, the most common form of trailer equipment. The dramatic decline in the price of diesel fuel over the past two years has been a major factor in keeping carriers in business, Harper added.
If there is a supply cushion brought on by the influx of new drivers, it may be drawn upon sooner rather than later. Moscrip of Truckstop.com said that while the market is well balanced, it remains tight. A 3-percent or higher bump in 2016 U.S. Gross Domestic Product, which would correlate to a similar increase in motor freight volumes, could thrust the market out of balance, he said. Rising demand, coupled with what Moscrip called a "tsunami" of government regulations—such as the mandate to shift from paper to electronic logs, tougher truck engine-emission standards, and a possible reinstatement of the controversial "restart" provisions of the federal hours-of-service rules, which in and of itself could curb driver productivity by 3 to 5 percent—could quickly absorb the available driver supply, no matter how many newbies decide to try their hands behind the wheel.
Still, technology's growing influence among drivers may mean that the old cyclical days of drivers hitting and then leaving the road at the first sign of macroeconomic difficulty could be waning. "The drivers that embrace technology don't tend to cycle out of the business," Moscrip said.