American businesses are not facing a truck driver shortage as much as they are failing to fully utilize the drivers who are already on the job, a U.S. research scientist has argued.
“The issue of America’s truck drivers not as a crisis of head count, but rather of working hours,” David Correll of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Transportation and Logistics said in a presentation to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
“American supply chains do not make effective use of the drivers we have, and thereby reduces national competitiveness, contributes to the industry’s very high turnover rate, and makes doing a critical job at times very unpleasant and less lucrative than it could be.”
American longhaul truck drivers spend just 6.5 hours per day driving, far short of the 11 hours they’re allowed to spend behind the wheel, he said.
“This implies that 40% of America’s trucking capacity is left on the table every day.”
The figure emerged through a study of 4,000 over-the-road drivers who worked at a pair of fleets between 2016 and 2020, and considered thousands of delivery appointments provided by shippers and brokers.
Excess detention time is to blame, Correll said.
“Drivers who arrive during typical first-shift appointments (5 or 6 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m.) are processed much more quickly on average than drivers who arrive outside of these hours,” he explained.
“The detention problem is – to use an analogy – a software problem, not a hardware problem. That is, the warehouses and distribution centers that we have show the capacity to get trucks loaded and unloaded quickly – but they commit to staffing policies and plans that realize this potential for only one-third or less of every working day.”
There does seem to be an option to offer “surge capacity” on weekends, he added. “Unfortunately, I have also observed anecdotally that many warehouses and distribution centers do not offer weekend freight appointments, or if they do, it is in limited capacity.”
ATA projects 160,000 driver shortage
Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), said in his testimony that the trucking industry faces “an escalating driver shortage”.
“According to statistics released within the last month, the trucking industry is currently short 80,000 drivers. That deficit will only continue to grow unless Congress and regulators modernize regulations that govern who can drive in interstate commerce and make targeted investments in programs to attract a new, diverse generation of drivers and supply chain workers,” Spear said.
“Without substantial action, by 2030 and at current trends, the driver shortage could grow to 160,000. Overall, nearly 1 million new drivers will need to be trained and hired in the next decade to keep pace with increasing consumer demand and an aging workforce.”
The U.S. has 3.6 million truck drivers, and the trucking industry accounts for one out of every 18 jobs. Driving a truck is the top job in 29 states.
Spear highlighted potential relief from programs such as a pilot project to allow 18-20-year-old drivers in interstate commerce, an advisory board to promote women in trucking, and a program to improve job opportunities for a diverse transportation workforce.
He also called on training dollars for job opportunities in essential workforces like trucking, and waivers on learning permits to ease testing delays.
But he also called on other steps to address inefficiencies in the supply chain.
“The entire supply chain would benefit from steps to incentivize communication between supply chain partners, realign financial incentives by modernizing regulations related to detention and demurrage charges by ocean carriers and marine terminal operators, and address the chassis and equipment shortage,” Spear said.
“A port remaining open 24/7 will do little to increase the flexibility of the supply chain if the port does not have adequate equipment available to move containers, or is slow to process the trucks that serve the facilities, or if inland warehouses are full or only staffed to open their shipping docks for limited hours.”
The reference to operating hours referred to U.S. President Joe Biden’s plan to have the Port of Los Angeles run around the clock to clear a backlog of container ships.
Spear cited challenges such as ports that run on different appointment systems and offer short notice of windows to pick up or drop off cargo and equipment, as well as a chassis shortage linked to tariffs imposed during the Trump Administration and a more recent antidumping and countervailing duty ruling from the Department of Commerce and U.S. International Trade Commission.
“Solutions should focus on addressing the constraints specific to those port facilities, not merely increasing the amount of time a driver can operate in order to overcome inefficiencies,” Spear said.
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