The driver dilemma

Features - Transportation Focus

Many factors are contributing to trucking challenges, but poor recruitment and retention rank at the top.

January 4, 2022

© Siwakorn / stock.adobe.com

For the past year, there have been no shortages of transportation-related issues. Recyclers and brokers faced challenges regardless of whether they wanted to move materials by rail, freight or truck. Overall, the industry has encountered a variety of supply chain disruptions, such as capacity issues and higher costs, that have made accurately forecasting logistics difficult.

It has become increasingly difficult to secure trucks, and costs also have risen. These setbacks have adversely affected supply chains because so many industries rely on trucks to move materials. According to the Arlington, Virginia-based American Trucking Associations (ATA), the trucking industry hauled 72.5 percent of all freight transported in the United States in 2019, equating to 11.84 billion tons. The $791.7 billion trucking industry accounted for 80.4 percent of the nation’s freight bill.

Many factors are contributing to trucking challenges, but recruiting and retaining qualified drivers might rank at the top of that list.

Joel Turk, regional vice president of sales at Werner Enterprises Inc., presented some sobering data on the driver shortage in his presentation during the Moving Materials session as part of 2021 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference Webinar Series hosted by Recycling Today in late October.

“Today, the American Trucking Associations estimates that we are short by over 60,000 drivers, and the forecast is to grow to more than 160,000 by the year 2030,” Turk said. “Additionally, the ATA estimates about 1 million driver hires will be needed over the next 10 years just to replace the drivers that are retiring.”

Werner Enterprises is a transportation and logistics company based in Omaha, Nebraska. Turk said the company has enough trucks but has been “challenged to seat the trucks.” He said various factors are contributing to the driver shortage.

Driving downsides

The average age of a professional driver has been trending upward in recent years to 54, Turk said, and many of those drivers might be approaching an age where they could consider retirement.

“This is telling us we are falling short of bringing younger drivers into the fold,” he said.

Turk had a few guesses as to why the trucking industry has failed to hire younger drivers to replace those who are retiring. First, he said, the next generation of drivers expects better work-life balance.

“They want more home time, consistency in their truck routes and predictability in their workweek.”

Yet, over-the-road trucking schedules can be very erratic, with some drivers gone for days or weeks at a time. Turk said the older generation of drivers had accepted the unpredictable schedules, but that work model has become a harder sell, particularly as more professions offer flexibility and more consistent schedules.

Wages also have not kept pace with what other industries are offering. Turk said most truck drivers are paid by the mile to incentivize productivity. But this means pay likely will be inconsistent, which is another deterrent.

“They only get paid when wheels are turning, and that depends on avoiding delays, decent weather and decent infrastructure. Some weeks are good, some weeks are bad,” he said.

Reputation also has become an issue in more recent years. In the past, Turk said, truck drivers tended to be more celebrated for spending long hours away from home and keeping roads safe. Today, though, he said many consider trucking to be “a dead-end job,” with drivers being treated as “second-class citizens.” This has made work environments less desirable as well.

“Higher demands for service under undesirable delivery windows, delays at the shipper or receiver, inadequate parking facilities, not allowing drivers to get out of their trucks [and] lack of restrooms or amenities can make for a very dissatisfied work environment,” he said.

Additionally, some regulations have created hurdles for the truck-driving profession. Turk said over-the-road drivers are limited to 14-hour workdays with a maximum of 11 driving hours only after a 10-hour off-duty break since the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) revised its hours-of-service regulations in June 2020.

The FMCSA also recently established the Commercial Driver’s License Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse that tracks driver violations and prevents noncompliant drivers from being hired. While Turk noted that this particular regulation is a plus, taking bad drivers off the road, it amplifies the industry’s need to find more qualified drivers.

© Siwakorn / stock.adobe.com

workable solutions

Despite the roadblocks the trucking industry faces, Turk said he sees some workable solutions that could help to alleviate them.

First, Turk said, he encourages recyclers to become shippers of choice for trucking companies by facilitating the loading and unloading of materials. He advised minimizing dock delays, providing appointment flexibility and accommodating preloading and dropping hook scenarios.

Turk added, “Shippers of choice would get the trucks if they can make the driver as productive as possible. … A productive driver is a happy driver because he’s getting his miles and maximizing a lot of driving hours to provide better service. We believe 3 to 4 percent capacity could be added to the market without even adding a truck if not for the delays at the dock.”

Upping the level of respect shown to the driving profession also could help with driver recruitment and retention. “Be courteous and professional is all the driver can ask for,” Turk said. “View your carriers as partners and become a shipper of choice.”

Part of being courteous means providing truck drivers with access to lounges, restrooms and safe parking.

Trucking and logistics companies also need to make several changes to reverse the driver shortage trend. Within the trucking industry, Turk said, some companies are focusing on offering “engineered lanes” to create productivity and provide drivers with more home time.

“On longer haul lanes—let’s say Chicago to LA—we are designing relay systems,” he said of engineered lanes. “We refer to these relay segments as pipes. Each pipe is approximately 200 to 250 miles. Therefore, there may be eight pipes in that lane between Chicago and LA. A driver would then be assigned a pipe in approximation to where they live. They’ll run out 250 miles, swap to an inbound load and run back to their domicile 250 miles within legal hours of service. The driver, in theory, gets his miles and is highly productive and home every night.”

He said trucking companies also are developing better pay packages. “Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all compensation, and we are now customizing packages to the type of driving job,” Turk added. “Fair and consistent pay is making a difference.”

Additionally, well-maintained, safe vehicles are critical to ensuring workers stay safe on the job.

“The industry, and in particular Werner, are starting to maintain two-year trade cycles on tractors to keep drivers in new, high-performance vehicles [and] fully investing in collision mitigation systems for safety and added creature comforts to help drivers,” he said.

To recruit the next generation of drivers, Turk said trucking firms must invest in driving schools and mentorship opportunities. He said Werner operates one of the largest driving schools in the U.S., adding that the program has expanded from eight locations to more than 20.

“The industry needs more resources to increase the driver pool with good, young talent,” Turk said. “You’re seeing other carriers invest in schools as well.”

He added that the industry also is lobbying to change the commercial drivers’ license age from 21 to 18 to expand the pool of potential drivers.

The infrastructure bill that was signed into law in mid-November includes workforce development provisions for the trucking industry, establishing a three-year, national pilot program based on the DRIVE-Safe Act that allows up to 3,000 18-to-20-year-old drivers to undergo advanced safety training at one time.

Automated and driverless trucks are other technologies Turk said could be developed to alleviate the driver shortage. “We’re working hard at the problem to make a difference,” he concluded. “It takes time, lots of resources and large capital investments, though, [which is] one of the reasons why you’re seeing costs start to rise so quickly.”

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at msmalley@gie.net.