Solving the driver shortage crisis is easier than it seems
September 1, 2012
I have a secret. I know the answers to one of the biggest problems facing the trucking industry. I don’t claim to be any smarter than any of my industry colleagues; hell, on a good day I may attain the status of average intelligence. I...
I have a secret. I know the answers to one of the biggest problems facing the trucking industry. I don’t claim to be any smarter than any of my industry colleagues; hell, on a good day I may attain the status of average intelligence. I do, however, have a skill that has become rare over time: I have learned the time-tested talent of keeping my ears open and my mouth shut (admittedly only when it really counts). As a result, I believe I have discovered the solution to the crippling effects of the driver shortage.
The answers have been there all along, for anyone who had the wherewithal to watch and listen. Anybody in the right set of circumstances can see what I’ve seen. The trick is to be open-minded enough to realize what you are looking at, or listening to.
Most major carriers have made the change from cookie-cutter fleet trucks to units more resembling owner/operator tractors and offer periodic bonuses and company events, mixed in with a great deal of public cheerleading. Although it all helps, it touches the tip of the iceberg and little more. To learn what I’ve learned, get in a truck, and pay close attention. More importantly, while in a truck stop waiting for a meal or a shower, stay quiet but eavesdrop like a CIA officer.
The first cure is nothing more complex than plain old spendable money. A survey last year on average drivers wages showed that top carriers were paying about $55,000 annually.
What bothers me, and bothers most experienced drivers that have run in droves from this industry, is that this is the top average pay, not an entry-level wage.
A long distance trucking company I know of paid 36 cents per mile in 1982. Today they pay 45, a 25% increase. In the same town, a construction company paid $10 per hour in 1982. Today, they’re paying $20 per hour, a 100% increase. Pretty easy math, huh?
The highway lifestyle is becoming less attractive all the time, but money talks. For an extra $20,000 per year, most folks can justify not being home daily. The last company driver I employed was in 2006, and they earned nearly $70,000, while still being home 51 weekends that year. I did not consider them to be overpaid, just fairly treated.
Ah yes, home weekends. While there is still the odd long-hauler that doesn’t care, the rest of us want to be home on weekends. Even more importantly, our log book needs to have its weekly reset at home, not in the cab of a truck. In my case, it came to my attention how rare this was by travelling up I-390 in New York on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings.
Watch how many Canadian trucks are travelling south. The intermodal crowd may be turning around at the other end, but most poor souls pulling dry vans will spend the weekend in Delaware, New Jersey or Philadelphia, neither one a hotbed of truck-friendly facilities for the weekend. Why could that freight not be delivered Friday or Monday morning, rather than Saturday?
In too many cases, carriers think nothing of sending a truck out on a Friday for a Saturday delivery, then tell drivers to get comfortable and call Monday. Some fleet owners and dispatchers seem to forget that this is not a lifestyle, but a job, although to be fair, some dispatchers have a large enough workload to make it difficult to track the hours-of-service and lifestyle wishes of every driver under their control.
Some regularity is the key to making any job bearable, much less enjoyable.
Does anyone ask a driver what his or her preferences are anymore? Don’t just assume that every driver is happy with their runs, simply because they don’t complain.
How many drivers would happily swap trips with another, but are afraid of management’s response if they ask?
Only regular staff surveys and interviews will tell you the truth. No matter how well paid, or treated, or how nice the equipment, a driver will leave if faced with a steady diet of work, or geography that he or she hates.
From my perspective, as a company owner still stuck in a truck, the previous guidelines will cure at least half of the driver shortage problem.
But what about the other half, and how do we pay for increased driver pay and downtime?
The same answer fits both questions. Drop the cheap freight. How many of you have experienced growth for the sake of growth? Your company has grown in size because you wanted to be larger, but to make this happen you needed to hire undesirable drivers and/or take on poor paying freight.
As a result, maybe you’ve gone from 500 trucks to 550, with no increase or maybe even a decrease in net profit. Personally, I can’t spend bragging rights, but I can sure spend profit. If your freight fees can’t sustain a driver salary of $75,000, raise them or drop the customer.
Fewer trucks on the road means we don’t need as many drivers. Let the rail system handle the cheap freight; we’ll move the profitable loads.
Question my theories all you wish. Any small carrier, with equally small resources, will tell you the same: every truck needs to pay its own way.
You can’t rely on volume for profit forever, as we just proved over the last three years. How many large carriers dropped like flies the minute freight volumes decreased? Most of us small operators are still here though.