One of the biggest thrills I remember when I was a kid was leaning against the back-seat rear window of my father’s Pontiac Bonneville and gesturing to oncoming truckers to blow their air horns. Once heard, the glee throughout the car was contagious, not only because of the rig’s loud roar but also the impressive size of the truck. It was operated by a seemingly noble driver hauling vital goods to market yet taking time to thrill a few kids in the back of a sedan. However, lately, industry challenges are making the availability of drivers scarce and capacity harder to find as one of the country’s most iconic professions erodes in search of lower costs.
As the U.S. economy continues to improve, shippers and freight forwarders are dealing with cost increases and tight trucking capacities when transporting their shipments. The surge in demand is spurring trucking companies to charge as much as 30 percent more than they did at this time last year. Transportation providers, who now see deliveries taking longer and costing more, are left to wonder if customers are willing to pay the higher price of an industry plagued with capacity challenges.
One of the factors driving the capacity struggle is the relatively new federal rule requiring electronic logging devices (ELDs) that are installed in virtually all rigs operating within the United States. The mandate, designed to keep drivers within hourly limits, was intended to prevent fatigue-related accidents as the old-style written logbooks had a perception of being prone to falsification. Although large trucking companies have had these devices for some time, smaller ones are new to this process and must now also comply. Experts estimate that the ELD requirement could extract up to 10 percent of the trucking capacity from the market.
While the ELD mandate may be causing drivers to leave the profession, other variables, including higher maintenance and fuel costs and competitive wages from other career opportunities, seem to be playing a role, as well. In 2016, the median annual salary for a truck driver in the U.S. was US$41,350 – a significant amount to some but quickly devalued when considering the adverse trucking lifestyle factors, including time away from home, family challenges, and the inherent risks of driving on our busy highways.
Truck drivers and the trucking profession once held a high level of honor that has now been eroded and plagued with a negative perception. The job is grueling, lonely and, at times, physically demanding, but it remains the primary method with which America moves its cargo. In fact, trucks ship 70 percent of goods consumed in the U.S. These vehicles are indeed the lifeblood of American commerce, delivering medicine, groceries and other essential items to market. Their nobility may have eroded, but through the rain, fog, ice and snow, most truckers are still on the job, supporting our growing economy.
As the driver workforce begins to age, it is estimated that the industry needs to hire 900,000 replacement truckers to meet demand. Ordinary drivers will not suffice; only qualified applicants, trained with the requisite skills and licensed to operate big trucks, meet the job requirements.
Despite the industry challenges being created by the truck-driver shortage, two different alternatives may be poised and ready to haul the cargo. First, frustrated shippers, tired of paying increased prices and dealing with truck capacity scarcity, could seek refuge and shift their loads onto trains. However, this may not solve the issue, as railroads, already in high demand, are slowing deliveries as a result of increasing backlogs.
If long-distance trucking rates continue to escalate, the difference between air and surface transportation cost per pound could significantly decrease and make airfreight a more attractive alternative. When combined with newer, larger planes taking the place of regional jets and fast transport speed, domestic air cargo could see a long-awaited resurgence. As for the more massive pallets and odd-sized pieces, many could be asking where all of those 747 freighters that once operated domestically are parked today and if they could be flying again soon.
We all know that, despite seemingly attractive alternatives, cargo goes nowhere without trucking and the professionals who operate the trucks themselves. Perhaps now is the time for shippers and forwarders to emphasize efficient shipment planning, the avoidance of expensive and time-consuming driver detention, and leverage technology in developing cost-efficient routings.
High long-distance trucking costs and capacity challenges will likely be with us for the foreseeable future, but in the meantime, effective communication between stakeholders may be the most efficient way to address the issue.