Driver dilemma

15 April 2008

Two years ago, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) attracted considerable attention in the industry and the media by documenting a situation that had long been apparent to many SC&RA member companies - a severe shortage of long-haul heavy-duty truck drivers. ATA's comprehensive study, conducted by Global Insights, revealed the shortage already stood at 20,000.

“In the absence of substantial market adjustments, this driver shortfall - projected demand less projected supply - would rise to 110,000 in 2014,” noted the study.

Last year, the Federal Reserve noted in its Beige Book that the truck driver shortage continued, particularly in the Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago and Philadelphia districts. Carriers have begun to adjust to this challenge.

Although the dearth of drivers restricts trucking companies’ ability to expand and meet current freight volumes, the resulting tight capacity has allowed many fleets to obtain higher rates from customers and reject unprofitable business. Former ATA chairman Steve Williams recently discussed how rate increases have allowed his company, Maverick USA, to invest in new technology, such as lane-departure warning systems and improved brake systems to make driving easier, a crucial factor in driver retention.

Recent research indicates that on-board computers could either ease or exacerbate the driver shortage, depending upon how they are used. If they become mainly a tool to monitor and control drivers, quit rates could increase. However, companies can enhance driver recruitment and retention by using on-board computers to increase communication between drivers and dispatchers.

Perhaps more importantly, computers and cell phones supplied by a company enable drivers to keep lines of communication open with family and friends. Loneliness has always ranked among the top reasons for truckers to put the brakes on their jobs.

Computers also may help attract a whole new breed of truckers. Among the students enrolled at the National Tractor Trailer School (NTTS) in Syracuse, NY are the holder of an MBA who was the president of his Keuka College class and a scientist formerly employed at Bristol Myers.

NTTS President Harry Kowalchyk pointed out that a growing number of information technology workers who lost their positions as their work was outsourced to other nations are learning to become truck drivers. Such new drivers should be especially appealing to SC&RA members whose specialized hauling jobs often require thoughtful, innovative approaches.

Kowalchyk also said equipment that is easier and more comfortable to operate has helped open the field to women. Considering the American Transportation Research Institute's estimate that women only make up four to six percent of the truck driving pool, more can still be done to attract women to trucking.

Still another attractive source of truckers is the armed forces. As Kowalchyk noted, somebody who muscled a supply truck along Iraqi highways is a perfect candidate.

SC&RA members and others already have tapped into this pool through Helmets to Hardhats (H2H), the job-placement program for members of the armed services returning to civilian life. This successful program stands to grow even stronger as a result of being taken over by monster.com, a leading online job recruiter, on January 1.

SC&RA will continue to work toward making the industry more attractive to all sorts of drivers. These efforts focus on areas such as the alleviation of roadway congestion, the development of a successful safety culture and the promulgation of favorable regulations. These topics all will be featured at SC&RA's Specialized Transportation Symposium, March 7-9, in Orlando, FL.

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