The last capacity crunch, roughly 2004-08, is considered to have been a great time for the industry by some participants.
Steve Williams, chief executive officer of Maverick USA, looks no further than his bottom line to know that the balance of transportation supply and demand again has shifted in favor of carriers, even if it’s not a repeat of 2004.
“The capacity shortage is very real,” says Williams, a former chairman of the American Trucking Associations. “But now I’ve got more business than I have drivers. The name of the game from here on out is recruiting, training and retention.”
Maverick, a longtime flatbed carrier that has expanded by adding specialized glass and refrigerated divisions, is “almost back” to its pre-recession seated truck count.
Williams calls 2012’s turnover “normal” at 58 percent, which is well below the industry average for large truckload carriers – typically about 100 percent. Maverick also grew by 250 trucks, its best total for a year without an acquisition. Along with financial and safety performances that were “stellar,” the year was the company’s best ever for recruiting, he says.
By this summer, the fleet was reduced by 105 trucks, while turnover was up slightly. However, recruiting statistics are “unbelievably different,” as Williams details.
Year-to-date in 2012: 16,316 leads processed, with 674 drivers hired; YTD 2013: 30,210 leads – or nearly double 2012’s to-date total – yet only 559 hires, or 115 fewer.
“Frequency is up,” he says. “More leads and more apps, but we’re rejecting an unprecedented number for one reason or another.”
Williams points out that Maverick is particularly cautious in its hires: The process includes hair follicle testing and sleep apnea screening. But Williams and Maverick have long advocated strict driver qualifications: Now other carriers must think twice, in the CSA environment, about looking the other way when it comes to new hires with spotty driving records.
“It’s time to continue to make it difficult to get in this industry and stay in this industry,” he says. “If you can’t cut it, get out.”
Given that the economy has not been robust, Williams says the growing supply/demand imbalance is capacity-driven.
“When we have little spot surges, like we’ve had in building materials, there are no trucks to haul it,” he says. But a sustained shortage of equipment – one that will allow carriers to set consistently higher prices – has yet to emerge.
“There’s a solution – pay drivers more money,” Williams says. “That attracts better talent. But you can’t have just one shipper that sees the light and gives you more money. You’ve got to have all the shippers see the light so you can raise your rates across all your lanes.”
Plan B: No experience required
For many carriers, a new driver is preferable to an experienced driver with bad habits, especially one with the bad driving history to prove it.
Lou Spoonhour, president of DriveCo and a former chairman of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association, says it’s about time for such a shift.
“I’ve been at this for 34 years, and we’re hearing from trucking companies that I’ve never heard the names of before,” Spoonhour says. “All of a sudden, entry-level is opening up as if it’s a brand-new field.”
Most CVTA schools also have regular, direct contact with carrier safety departments to stay up to date with hiring criteria.
“Sometimes the experienced driver is set in his ways, whereas a student is a clean slate and can be molded,” Spoonhour says. “That’s what we claim to be our advantage – they’re coming out with no extra baggage.” Typically, driving school graduates will go on to a carrier’s finishing school for more advanced training.
The average student age is “probably 35 to 40, where it used to be 28 to 33,” Spoonhour said. “We’ve started to get an increase in skilled workers, like electricians, carpenters, plumbers who made a living in the construction trades. We’ve found that trucking is a good option for ‘hands-on’ people. Or they have friends or relatives who drive.”
Students also see truck driving as a lasting opportunity that won’t be shipped overseas, Spoonhour says.
In order to maintain a 95 percent placement rate for its 200 to 300 students each year, DriveCo screens extensively. Students have to be able to pass a physical and a drug screen, and they’re subject to random drug tests while in school. Additionally, the school checks the prospective student’s driving record and criminal history. Pre-enrollment interviews are designed to make sure the students understand trucking and that the business will be a good fit with their personal goals.