The biggest hurdle in the American supply chain: not enough truckers

The shortage of drivers alarms transport companies, which have increased salaries

Faced with the possibility of incurring a student debt of $ 50,000, Michael Gary dropped out of college and began working as a transporter in 2012. He could afford to pay the bills, he said, and could cut his expenses if he actually lived in the truck.

However, over the years, the work created tensions in their relationships. He spent weeks away from home and couldn’t prioritize his health– It took him more than three years to schedule an appointment with an optometrist, having to cancel it several times due to his changing schedules. He resigned on October 6.

He had no personal life other than driving the truck”Said Gary, 58, who lives in Vancouver, Washington. “In the end, I got fed up”.

The supply of truckers has been in short supply for years, but a wave of retirements added to those who only quit to take less stressful jobs is exacerbating the crisis in the US supply chain, which has led to empty shelves in stores, shoppers terrified in the holiday season and traffic jams at ports. Warehouses across the country are overloaded with products, and delivery times for many goods now take months, rather than days or weeks.

A report published last month by the American Trucking Association (ATA) estimated that in the industry 80,000 drivers are needed, a record number which, according to the association, could double by 2030 as more carriers retire.

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Trucks travel along Interstate 710 in Long Beach, California, near the Port of Los Angeles (Stella Kalinina / The New York Times).

Problems in the supply chain are due to several factors, including an extraordinary increase in demand for products and the closures of factories abroad. But the situation has been exacerbated by a shortage of truckers and worsening conditions throughout the transport sector, which have made it even more difficult for consumers to get the things they want when they want them.

This phenomenon wreaks havoc throughout the economy, slowing growth, driving up consumer prices and undermining President Joe Biden‘s approval rating. However, the White House has struggled to offer a solution.

On Tuesday, he announced a series of measures aimed at alleviating problems in the supply chain, such as allowing ports to redirect other federal funds to efforts to mobilize pending shipments. As part of the plan, the Port of Savannah could reallocate more than $ 8 million to convert its existing inland facilities into temporary container warehouses in Georgia and North Carolina to help ships unload their cargo more quickly.

This came after Biden’s announcement last month that major ports and private companies would start operations in 24-hour shifts in an attempt to mitigate the deadlock. However, preliminary results suggest that trucking continues to be a major obstacle in this initiative, increasing agglomeration in ports.

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On any given day, dozens of vessels wait outside the port of Los Angeles to unload the containers

Los Angeles and Long Beach Port Directors stated that, initially at least, Few additional truckers showed up to take advantage of the overtime.

Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said his port had told the White House in July that about 30 percent of the spaces that are designated to truckers every day in the port were not being used, due to largely due to the shortage of drivers, frames to haul loads, and warehouse workers to unload products from trucks.

“Here in the port complex, with all these cargoes, we need more drivers,” Seroka said.

The $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the House of Representatives last week could help cushion shortages. The legislation includes a three-year pilot training program that would allow commercial truck drivers to cross state lines starting at age 18. In most states, those under the age of 21 can obtain a commercial vehicle driver’s license, but federal regulations prohibit them from driving on interstate routes.

However, industry experts noted that this program was unlikely to remedy the immediate problem as it could take months to get up and running, in addition to the fact that a lot of people don’t really want to drive trucks.

The shortage has alarmed shipping companies, which say not enough young people to replace retiring workers of the workforce because of their age. Stereotypes related to work, the isolated lifestyle and the focus of the new generations on studying four-year college degrees have made it difficult to recruit drivers. Trucking companies have struggled to retain their workers: turnover rates have reached as high as 90 percent for large carriers.

As a reply, companies have increased wages. Average weekly income for long-distance drivers has increased about 21 percent since the beginning of 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, commercial truck drivers saw a median salary of $ 47,130.

To finance these wage increases, transportation companies have raised their rates. Jon Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation, stated that the driver shortage has contributed to rising costs for retailers, something that consumers in turn resent with the rise of some prices in the stores.

“We are seeing an increase in costs at every level of the transportation supply chain,” said Gold. “From maritime transport to rail and land, the costs are increasingly high.”

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Trucks in the Port of Los Angeles (Stella Kalinina / The New York Times).

Derek J. Leathers, president and CEO of Werner Enterprises in Omaha, Nebraska, which employs about 9,500 drivers, said their services cost 15 percent more compared to pre-pandemic levels, as wages have risen. drivers and equipment costs.

The company is trying to hire around 700 truck drivers – many more than the 300 it recruited before the pandemic – as growing demand and retirements left the company with few workers. Since the beginning of 2020, it has raised the remuneration of its drivers by 20 percent and expanded the number of driving academies it operates.

“I’ve been in this business for over 30 years,” Leathers said. “I certainly think this is the smallest driver market I have seen in my career”.

Holly McCormick, vice president of the talent office at Groendyke Transport in Enid, Oklahoma, stated that while the company offered an average salary of about $ 70,000 a year, fewer people were willing to be away from home for long periods. Waiting time for loading and unloading merchandise has also increased during the pandemic, which has lowered the salary of drivers who are paid per kilometerMcCormick explained.

In general, truckers are not paid for the first two hours of waiting, according to a report by the Independent Drivers-Owner-Operators Association (OOIDA).

“It’s quite worrying,” McCormick acknowledged. “The number of people in the workforce is decreasing.”

Jay Wagner, 57, a truck driver hauling hazardous chemicals, is typically in transit for three-week periods, rarely spending time at his home in Wichita, Kansas. Wagner confessed that he contemplated quitting his daily job to spend more time with his wife and grandson, but wasn’t sure he would be able to find another job if he did.

“I’ve dedicated my whole life to this,” said Wagner, who has been a truck driver for 27 years. “This is what I do”. He said there are some benefits to the job, such as the freedom to drive on the highway and the $ 75,000 to $ 85,000 he makes a year.

To make up for the shortage, Industry leaders and researchers say trucking companies need to invest much more in recruiting women and people of color. Only seven percent of truck drivers are women and 40 percent belong to a minority, according to a 2019 report from the ATA.

Some have also advocated for expanding load limits so that trucks can carry heavier loads, or permanently lowering the age limit for drivers. The infrastructure bill’s pilot program aims to help recruit more drivers by giving people 18 and older access to commercial transportation on interstate routes. However, some industry representatives have expressed concern about the risks posed by the program and suggest that the federal government should rather focus on improving retention rates.

“If you take safety into account, the age range shouldn’t be less, it should be older,” said Todd Spencer, president of OOIDA.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the Transportation Department understood that it had to be “very careful about security,” and that the program is an initial test.

Some have accepted this measure as necessary. Bob Costello, chief economist at the ATA, said 18-year-olds interested in being truckers may not wait until their 21st birthday to apply for jobs and could instead end up working in the food or construction industries. While other supply chain bottlenecks could ease after the pandemic, Costello said the driver shortage would most likely worsen.

“If we don’t solve this driver shortage, I think this business of going into stores and seeing empty shelves could be our future,” he said.

© The New York Times 2021