Viewpoint: Trucking industry shows its resiliency after 18 years
June 1, 2006
This month marks a personal milestone of sorts for me: my 20th year in journalism, the last 18 spent writing about transportation issues. Gotta tell you, this industry is a journalist's dream; no shor...
This month marks a personal milestone of sorts for me: my 20th year in journalism, the last 18 spent writing about transportation issues. Gotta tell you, this industry is a journalist’s dream; no shortage of issues to write about and certainly no lack of colourful personalities ready and willing to comment on them.
From the initial shock in the late ’80s brought on by the move to a deregulated industry (remember the fear the US fleets would take over – guess that didn’t happen) and the push to take safety seriously (any one recall the Muscillo Transport saga?) to electronic engines, satellite communications, new emission standards, 9/11, diesel price spikes, intermodal gridlock, recessions and economic booms, and several trucker protests in between – I’ve seen the industry go through much and somehow manage to come out swinging.
The ability to do so is even more impressive when you consider trucking did so during the 20 most disruptive years in our planet’s history – at no time has the pace of change been faster or posed more challenges. The capabilities of computers that used to cost upwards of $15M two decades ago can easily be handled by a $400-$500 laptop today. Thirty per cent of the jobs that exist today did not exist 20 years ago. Our trade with China has almost reversed the traditional east to west shipping patterns and at the moment we only take in about 1% of China’s exports.
Trying to deal with their own industry challenges while also keeping up with such a torrid pace of change has deep sixed many Canadian companies in other industries as it has with about a quarter of our own fleets. But the fact that trucking, unlike some other industries, continues to thrive speaks to the resiliency and innovative abilities of the people in this industry, especially when you consider how little help – hey, even attention would have been nice – trucking has received from Ottawa over this time.
But there’s one issue that just won’t go away. An issue I’ve been writing about since my first day on the job and that the industry just can’t seem to solve: the driver shortage. It’s fair to say we’re no better off today on that score than 20 years ago. In fact I would say we may be far worse off.
The average age of a Teamster’s driver in the US is 57 and the Canadian truck market hit an ominous mark in 2004, according to a study by Statistics Canada. For the first time, truckers aged 55 and over outnumbered those under 30, indicating that the occupation may be hit by a large number of retirements in the coming years. Only 5% of drivers were under 25 in 2004, compared with 15% in the labour force as a whole. This indicates that today’s young workers are less inclined than the previous generation to enter the occupation. And that retention is just as crucial as recruitment.
As Don Streuber, the president and CEO of Bison Transport, recently pointed out in a speech to shippers: “The person at the core of my company is not a president or a manager, it’s the driver. In our industry he who has the drivers, wins.”
So why are so many fleets losing on this issue? After 20 years, I’ve got some thoughts on that, and a few the industry may not like. But I will share them with you in next month’s column.