Truck-driver shortage loomsPublished 9:30pm Monday, July 30, 2012
Right now, Suffolk trucking company Century Express could use 15 more owner-operated trucks, “and keep them busy,” Marilynn Ryan says.
The company leases 30 trucks, working Hampton Roads’ port facilities for shipper clients.
“It’s one of our top problems,” said Ryan, the company’s operations manager. “I’ve been in the trucking business for 30 years, and this is the worst I’ve seen it — especially with freight out of the port going great guns.”
The truck-driver shortage — a national problem — is nothing new.
According to the American Trucking Association, the issue last arose around 2005.
The Great Recession and attendant decrease in demand for drivers masked the issue, which is now rearing again.
The long-haul driver shortage will reach 111,000 by 2014, according to projections by the association in 2005.
With Americans spending again as the economy starts to improve, Virginia Trucking Association President and CEO Dale Bennett said the supply-and-demand equation is turning around.
“If there’s an increase in demand for truck shipments to be made, and not enough drivers,” then logistics companies, shippers and the economy generally will suffer, he said.
With increasing throughput at Hampton Roads ports and more shippers locating distribution facilities here, Suffolk is feeling the driver shortage more acutely than many other places, experts say.
In early July, the Port of Virginia reported that TEUs —20-foot-equivalent containers — were up 11 percent in June from June 2011 levels.
Year-to-date, the port had handled 994,727 TEUs — 5.4 percent more than during the same period last year.
Truck driving is not being presented to recent generations as a viable career, Tim Duvall, supply chain director of ACE Hardware — which chose Suffolk for its main East Coast distribution facility — told a port-related conference in Norfolk last week.
Ask a sixth-grade class “how many want to be a truck driver, how many hands are you going to get?” he said.
New regulations are also contributing to the driver shortage, according to Bennett and Ryan.
Rollout of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Compliance Safety Accountability program began in late 2010, designed to improve commercial vehicle safety by monitoring the performance of drivers and carriers.
Infractions, which Ryan said could be as trivial as having a light out, are assigned points, which “add up against the driver’s personal safety profile.”
“If they get stopped and have a chassis light out, it can be a two-point violation,” she said. “Those little points add up. For a trucking company to hire drivers, they want drivers with low CSA scores.”
Bennett said that while his association supports efforts to improve safety, the effect is that “drivers who may have been marginal (before) … now find it very difficult to find a position in trucking.”
Trucking companies with high CSA scores are targeted by safety inspectors and also find it harder to attract business, as “customers pick their trucking companies based on CSA,” Ryan said.
Meanwhile, drivers aging out of the industry and stringent Class A commercial driver’s license requirements are also having an impact.
Century Express requires a CDL Class A and minimum two years’ experience, Ryan said, and while owner-operators have more autonomy and higher pay, driving for an over-the-road outfit to gain that experience can be tough.
“They don’t get home very much … (and) they don’t get a choice of where they’re going,” she said.
Additionally, Ryan said, driving trucks involves long hours and traffic snarls, and drivers also “have to be customer sales representatives.”
Maintenance gets expensive and, working the ports, a driver is responsible for damage, including inadvertent damage, to the port pool chassis he or she hauls.
Conversely, she said, owner-operators earn $10,000 above the median national annual income while working for themselves.
“Our guys, if they don’t want to work Monday, they don’t have to,” she said.
Truck driving is a good career for many veterans, Bennett said, noting the Virginia Trucking Association’s support of the Virginia Troops to Trucks program, which focuses on helping former military obtain CDL licenses.