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Driver Shortage Impacts Some, Looms in Distance for Others
Truck Drivers Scarce: Faced with a shortage of truck drivers, many companies are seeking new methods to fill the growing numbers of vacant seats behind the wheel.

By Elizabeth Grey Morrison
Date Posted: 7/1/2008

   Beyond rising fuel prices, another factor making it difficult for some companies to service customers is a shortage of reliable truck drivers. Some companies in the forest products industry, especially logging operations and sawmills, are struggling to locate drivers. This problem can make it harder to get lumber when you need it and drive up transport costs even further.

   It looks like the driver situation is only going to get worse as the aging baby boom population retires.

   “That’s the group that provides the vast majority of truck drivers,” said Tiffany Wlazlowski, spokesperson for the American Trucking Association (ATA).  

   Ervin Equipment’s Regional Sales Manager Chad Strader said the decline in truck drivers has impacted business when selling trailers to pallet companies over long distances.

   “I would say that it impacts us when it comes to moving our product around the country, and that’s what you have to do,” Strader said. “There’s so much movement of equipment in the United States that when there is a shortage of drivers it affects everything.”  

   Larry Markey, president of NOVA Forest Products, a major cut stock supplier in the upper Midwest, said that the truck shortage has impacted business and made the company look for alternative strategies of transportation, including using rail carriers.

   “The best thing we see is using rail service,” Markey said. “But then again, that’s not for short hauls.”

   One of the advantages to using this type of transportation is that it is less expensive over long hauls.  However, on shorter trips, Markey said using trucks is still a better option after weighing costs and the fact that many pallet companies do not have rail sites to load and collect the materials.

   Another way to help offset the shortage may be through legislation.  Neil Ward, director of communications for the Forest Resources Association, said the Agricultural Transportation Efficiency Coalition is working with Congress to permit the federal highway system to increase gross vehicle weight limits for unprocessed farm and forest commodities. If approved, drivers would essentially be able to carry more cargo which would not only help ease the decline of truck drivers, but will also cut diesel costs by keeping fewer trucks on the roads. 

   “We’re just consolidating loads,” Ward said.

   Ward said current federal regulations cap truck loads at 80,000 pounds for standard, five axle trucks.  If passed, the proposal would allow drivers to carry 97,000 pounds on six-axle carriers.    

   Even with these strategies to help offset the shortage, it seems that more truck drivers are still needed.  As a result, Wlazlowski said the trucking industry is beginning to recruit women, minorities, and ex-military veterans into truck driving positions. 

   “The trucking industry is making great strides to really reach beyond that group,” Wlazlowski said.

   In addition to the decreasing demographic, Wlazlowski said that people often retire from truck driving because of a quality of life issue. Because of the many hours on the road that truck drivers must face as part of their occupations, some accept construction and manufacturing jobs where they can spend more time with their families.

   Mickey Pierce, instructor for the American Truck Driving School, said that it is these long hours that are ultimately deterring many people from truck driving positions.

   “The main thing is not wanting to be away from home,” Pierce said. “They’re gone all the time.” 

   As with employment, Pierce said enrollment in his school has declined in recent years. Even among those who do enroll and eventually accept jobs in the industry, Pierce said retainment is an issue.

   “Everybody that does go out comes back in a year or two trying to look for local jobs to be with their families,” Pierce said.

   Distance is ultimately proving to be the determining factor in retainment of truck driving positions. For example, Markey said that some of NOVA’s business transactions take place up to 2,000 miles away, which requires drivers to be on the road for days at a time. Hence, it is often difficult to keep drivers for these long hauls, and the turnover rate is much greater.  

   That’s also good news for some pallet companies because it means the industry may have an easier time keeping drivers that it uses for short-haul customers.

   Dan Lindenmuth, vice president of a transportation company for Edwards Wood Products, said that they have not experienced transportation issues with the decline in truck drivers. The catch here is that drivers typically only make day trips for the company and are not away on weekends.

   “This is an ideal driving job,” Lindenmuth said. “This would give them the lifestyle that they’re after. It’s very appealing to drivers, and that’s probably why we don’t experience the turnover in the industry.”

   Even though the turnover is much lower in companies that travel shorter distances, the shortage has not gone unnoticed. Lindenmuth said the transportation company requires at least two full years of experience driving trucks before a candidate can be hired, and because of the high turnover rate of drivers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find applicants who have such experience.

   “When you get an applicant and do a background check on them, it is very difficult to get qualified applicants,” Lindenmuth said, adding that only two out of every 10 applicants typically have the necessary experience to be hired.     

   In order to try to help offset the distance factor and to be more family friendly, Wlazlowski said the industry is beginning to target married couples to accept jobs together. 

   “There are some companies that are having great success at hiring married couples who can go out and be on the road together,” Wlazlowski said.   

   ATA is also currently working on a driver tuition finance program in cooperation with the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA), which would provide funds for people to go to truck driving school.  

   “We’re leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to find new drivers, and this program allows us to reach out to those who want to become drivers but who without some sort of assistance might not be able to enter the profession,” said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves in a statement.

   Known as the ATA/TCA Company Driver Tuition Finance Program, it partners motor carriers and lending institutions to provide low-interest financing to those who wish to receive instruction but otherwise might not be able to afford it. The motor carrier guarantees the student loan in exchange for his or her commitment to work for the motor carrier upon graduation. To obtain a copy of the ATA/TCA Company Driver Tuition Finance Program brochure, contact Christina Cullinan at ccullinan@trucking.org.

   While the wood pallet industry may not be as directly affected as its suppliers, truck driver shortages are likely to have a ripple effect in the long run by pushing upward driver salaries. These conditions may also provide business opportunities for pallet companies that have backhaul situations or control their own trucking fleets. Staying ahead of the game, it is always helpful to be mindful of the market and prepare for alternative modes of transportation just in case shortage might begin to affect your business.

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