Empty seats getting harder to fill

Empty seats getting harder to fill

Recruiting and retaining good truck drivers will remain difficult for carriers, according to a variety of trucking executives and industry experts

Recruiting and retaining good truck drivers will remain difficult for carriers, according to a variety of trucking executives and industry experts.

“Our costs were up 10% in the second quarter this year versus the same period in 2004 and were up slightly versus the first quarter of 2005 … due to substantial increases in driver pay and fuel prices,” pointed out David Parker, chairman, president & CEO of Chattanooga, TN-based Covenant Transport.

“Driver pay was up almost six cents per mile, or 16%, versus the second quarter of 2004 and about 2.5 cents per mile versus the first quarter of 2005,” Parker said. “We believe such driver pay increases are necessary from the industry as a whole to enhance the prospect of attracting additional drivers into the industry.”

“The supply/demand balance remains very delicate in the truckload market,” noted Kirk Thompson, president & CEO of Lowell, AR-based J.B. Hunt. “Even a slight increase in demand would outstrip the available supply of trucks. Driver availability continues to be a serious concern … and increases in driver pay over the last few months and during the quarter have resulted in only marginal improvements in driver supply. We continue to see no signs of fundamental improvement in driver availability for the foreseeable future.”

“The crunch for drivers has been rough since March this year and is getting rougher,” Dale Lawless, president of Little Rock, AR-based driver recruiting firm LPS Inc., told Fleet Owner. “You don’t see quality drivers out there looking for jobs. They are staying put now because companies have finally realized they must pay their drivers more and get them home more often. I don’t hear nearly the amount of complaints that I did even three years ago from drivers about pay and home time.”

The only ones job-hopping are drivers with poor work histories and driving records and owner-operators who aren’t getting the level of pay and fuel surcharge reimbursements they expect, Lawless said.

“The good thing for owner-operators is that the money is out there now,” he said. “The ones changing jobs are the ones not getting the full fuel surcharge. They want the whole thing, not a percent of it, and companies that don’t give them the whole thing or are behind on paying it are going to lose them.”

Indeed, owner-operator compensation has dramatically changed over the last few years, with carriers much more willing to pay for a range of related costs. For example, L.J. Kennedy Trucking in Kearny, NJ, gives its owner-operators a range of per-load benefits, including tarp pay of $15, stop-off pay of $40, 75% of any detention charges collected, an extra eight cents per mile for all over dimensional charges billed, and 100% of the fuel-surcharge billed to the customer.

Kennedy also promises its owner-operators a minimum of $200 for each load hauled, regardless of length of travel, inclusive of all accessorial charges, along with payments for fuel and other state tax stickers as well as cargo and liability insurance.

“This is why you’re not seeing the driver ‘churn’ anymore that we experienced as little as two years ago,” LPS’ Lawless noted.

Even with a greater focus on their pay and lifestyle, driver ranks are still expected to fall short of the numbers needed to meet freight demand for some time to come. According to a recent study by the American Trucking Association (ATA), there’s currently a national shortage of 20,000 truck drivers, which is predicted to increase to 111,000 by 2014 if current demographic trends stay their course and if the overall labor force continues to grow at a slower pace.

“Unfortunately, there is no single ‘silver-bullet’ approach that will solve the problem,” said Bill Graves, ATA’s president & CEO. “This issue has been before the industry for quite sometime. Yet, recruiting, training and retaining qualified truck drivers is as daunting a task now as it was several years ago. In fact, it’s probably a bigger task now given not only the continued publication of new, more stringent safety rules, but also because of security requirements.”

According to ATA, of the 3.4 million truck drivers on the road, 1.3 million are long-haul truckers. And that’s the segment that most needs building up.

If current demographic trends continue, the supply of new long-haul heavy truck drivers will grow at an annual rate of just 1.6% in the next decade. But Global Insight, the economic consulting firm conducting the study for ATA, predicts over the next 10 years, economic growth will generate a need for a 2.2% average annual increase in long-haul heavy truck drivers, or 320,000 jobs overall.

On top of that, another 219,000 must be found to replace drivers 55 and older who will retire in the next decade. That puts total expansion and replacement hiring needs at 539,000 or an average of 54,000 new drivers per year for the next decade, Graves said.

“To increase the nation’s driver pool, the industry increasingly will need to draw upon a larger percentage of women and minorities,” he noted. “For example, women today currently represent 5% of all truck drivers, while African Americans represent 11.7% of long-haul drivers, with Hispanics making up 9.7% of the long-haul driving sector.”

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