The trucking industry is still 18 to 24 months from hitting a peak driver shortage, but consumers already are feeling the impact.
Transportation costs the last couple of years have increased about 3 percent a year, and at least one-third of that hike is tied to a shortage of truck drivers, said Derek Leathers, the president and chief operating officer of Sarpy County-based Werner Enterprises.
Those charges are passed through to consumers on everyday products from groceries and clothes to electronics and housewares.
“And that has the potential to increase in coming years,” Leathers said.
Meanwhile, the industry is working to ease the impact in the Midlands. A strong community college system, partnerships with the Nebraska Departments of Labor and Economic Development, and initiatives by major carriers including Werner and Crete Carrier Corp. to get drivers home more often all have helped keep the trucking industry on solid footing, said Larry Johnson, president of the Nebraska Trucking Association.
“We have the right partners at the table and the education system to help develop long-term solutions,” Johnson said. “That will continue to create a competitive advantage for us.”
According to estimates from the Truckload Carriers Association, trucking companies across the United States are currently facing a shortage of upward of 200,000 drivers. Others, including Bob Costello, the chief economist and vice president of the American Trucking Association, say the current shortfall is closer to 20,000 or 30,000 drivers.
“If we were short 200,000 drivers, freight would be sitting everywhere. It isn't,” Costello said, adding that the shortfall could “continue to swell if we don't attract more people to the industry.”
Leathers agrees with the Truckload Carriers Association's estimate but said that figure won't be realized until at least a year and a half from now.
You can blame the Great Recession: Consumer spending hit the brakes. Manufacturers slowed the production of goods. And the demand for long-haul trucking and freight sagged.
Veteran truckers needing to support their families — especially independent truckers and those driving for smaller fleets — left the industry, sold their trucks and equipment, and found work elsewhere, said David Heller, director of safety and policy for the Truckload Carriers Association.
They haven't come back.
The industry is failing to land enough young recruits as baby boomer drivers are on the brink of retirement. The allure of a trucking career has faded, and high school graduates can't transition right into the driver pool because they're required to wait until they're 21 to obtain their commercial driver's license. Additionally, many truck driving courses cost more than $6,000, a large amount for an unemployed worker interested in a career in truck driving.
“We're kind of losing them on both ends, if you will,” Heller said. “It's really been this perfect storm of economic woes.”
For now, Werner is rolling along normally, Leathers said. The company has about 100 driver openings, a number he said is typical because of retirements and drivers taking leaves of absence.
Crete Carrier Corp., based in Lincoln, has grappled with the driver shortage for years and has roughly 300 driver openings across the country, according to the company's website.
The company has the business and customer base to expand, but not enough good drivers to fill their tractor cabs, said Tim Aschoff, Crete's vice president of risk management.
“We've been operating in that mode for a number of years, since the driver supply never became abundant,” he said.
At least one private driving school has seen an uptick in drivers coming through its program. At JTL Truck Driver Training, 10008 Sapp Brothers Dr., 110 people have enrolled this year in the company's four-week driving course and received their commercial driver's license through July. In a typical year, about 120 people graduate from the course said Larry Marsh, owner of JTL.
“This has been our best year in probably 11 years,” Marsh said. “It seems like people are more willing to invest in themselves to start a new career.”
One of those people is Hartley Pinder.
The 23-year-old Miami native, who currently lives in Omaha, is pursuing a career in long-haul truck driving.
The U.S. Air Force veteran enjoys traveling and likes long — really, really long — road trips. Late last year, just before his stint in the Air Force concluded in January, Pinder drove from Omaha to Virginia, from Virginia to Florida, then back to Omaha. His fiancee didn't drive a lick.
“I love to travel, I love to see new things,” Pinder said.
So much so, in fact, that now Pinder is using his GI Bill benefits to take courses and receive his commercial driver's license at JTL. He sees truck driving as a good opportunity to make a steady income.
“My fiancee doesn't mind. She understands how it is with not being home because of the military and getting deployed,” Pinder said. “Actually, she loves it because her dad was a truck driver.”
To find more new, young drivers like Pinder, carriers have been trying some new tactics:
>> Get drivers home more often. In an effort to make sure long-haul drivers still get to see their families, companies are designing routes so that drivers can spend at least one night per week at home.
>> Crete is taking that trend a step further by matching drivers' needs with different fleets, including some regional groups that allow drivers to return home nightly. “That gives us the ability to appeal to a broader driver base,” Aschoff said.
>> Offering newer equipment. At Werner, the average age of the company's tractors is 2.2 years, compared with the industry average of 6.7 years, Leathers said.
>> Additionally, drivers are being paid more — between $24,880 and $58,440, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — with better benefits, and have seen the physical nature of the job reduced as more freight is put on pallets, ready to be moved by machines rather than by hand, Leathers added.
But with higher wages come higher operating costs. And in an industry where profit margins are already thin, Costello said, that means trucking companies need to charge their customers more.
“So when costs rise because driver pay rises in the face of the shortage, which is currently happening, motor carriers can't absorb all of the additional expenses,” Costello said. “How much you and I pay at the store is determined by if the motor carrier customers pass along any higher prices of truck transportation.”
In some ways, the continued slowdown in the domestic and global economy has actually helped curtail the impact of the driver shortage. If the economy were to start booming, there wouldn't be enough drivers available and freight would be left sitting, undelivered.
“(The slow economy) is a good thing as it relates to the driver shortage even though it's a bad thing in almost every other measure,” Leathers said. “But we know it's there and it's looming.”
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