By Natalie Doss - Aug 25, 2011 1:26 PM ET
U.S. trucking companies may face a 30 percent surge in wage bills by 2014 as rising demand for freight shipments threatens to push the industry’s driver shortage to the longest on record.
The current shortfall will double in a year to about 300,000 full-time positions, or 10 percent of the workforce, said Noel Perry, managing director at consultant FTR Associates in Nashville, Indiana. A three-year deficiency would top the 300,000 vacancies lasting for about a year in 2004, he said.
A gap between cargo demand and the driver supply adds to evidence that the freight industry is recovering. While the stock-market slump since July weighs on truckers such as J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., 2011’s gains in cargo tonnage fit “with an economy that is growing very slowly,” the American Trucking Associations trade group said this week.
“The truck-driver population is growing at less than 1 percent a year,” said Jeff Kauffman, a Sterne Agee & Leach Inc. analyst in New York who follows truck and railroad stocks. “Freight’s growing at closer to 4 percent.”
Truckers’ shipping volume, a barometer of the broader economy, was up 11 percent in July from a year earlier, according to Cass Information Systems. Echo Global Logistics Inc. (ECHO), a Chicago-based provider of freight services, said last month it’s “very optimistic about continued growth in the second half.”
The shortfalls seen in previous freight rebounds are getting a new twist, according to Perry. U.S. safety regulations curbing drivers’ work hours mean companies must have more employees. Also now in place are rules helping companies assess applicants’ driving histories -- weeding out bad risks while also shrinking the pool of applicants.
Rising wages would add to the cost pressures from a bigger workforce and higher prices for new trucks required by federal emissions rules.
Truckers also are paying more for diesel fuel, which averaged 30 percent more a gallon this year through Aug. 23 than the same period in 2010, putting them at a competitive disadvantage to railroads’ superior efficiency.
“Truck is more expensive than rail already,” Kauffman said in an interview. “If it was purely a decision based on price, I probably already have moved to rail. But the flip side is, there’s a service difference” favoring truckers because of their greater speed.
The Standard & Poor’s Midcap Trucking Index slid 11 percent in 2011 before today, and remains 53 percent below its peak in 2007, before the last U.S. recession. J.B. Hunt, the biggest trucker by market value, has dropped 4.3 percent this year. The S&P 500 Railroads Index (S5RAIL) was down 1.6 percent.
Revenue per mile driven excluding fuel surcharges for dry van shipments has advanced 13 percent to $1.55 since the low reached in 2009 as freight demand plunged in the recession, according to industry researcher Truckloadrate.com. Trucks carry about 29 percent of domestic cargo, as measured by revenue ton- miles, compared with about 39 percent... Continue Reading...