Shipper Buying Behavior Worsening Scarcity of Specialized Drivers

DeAnna Swinton
Published on November 1, 2018

By Jeff Tucker, CEO, Tucker Company Worldwide

When you look at the bigger picture of the trucking industry’s demographics, we don’t hesitate to argue that in the aggregate, a driver shortage doesn’t exist. Overall driver count is at an all-time record high, and the count continues to expand monthly. Look no further than this: since February 2012, there has been a net increase of over 551,000 drivers added to the “for-hire” fleets.

Higher driver wages, combined with better pricing data and cheaper, better operational software, coupled with the fact we are in the second longest economic recovery, is fueling better odds for success, and is, without a doubt, attracting drivers to the industry.  There is tremendous churn of drivers from one carrier to another. Data shown in “driver shortage” news coverage—trade media and popular media—doesn’t mention how the driver population has exploded especially since 2012. For example, in those 6 years, for-hire fleets with 1-100 trucks have added 332,000 net drivers, with fleets with 1-20 trucks accounting for 229,000 of that number. Overall, the nation’s driver count has increased by about 559,000 drivers, swelling the total number to 2.5M.

That doesn’t mean some areas of transportation aren’t in a crunch, especially if you’re hauling hazardous, liquid or dry bulk, oversized cargo, or even if you require a team. Every segment of trucking that requires additional training and skill sets is suffering a bit now. We see this in the oil and gas industry, for example – where there is activity supporting capital projects, new methane plants being built, and refineries upgrading. We don’t expect it to slow down anytime soon, especially since the US has recently become the world’s largest oil producer.

The explosive growth of drivers hasn’t percolated its way to the niche markets like compressed gas, liquid bulk, flatbed, specialized, hoppers, etc. Time will help, but a big factor that continues to delay progress is the struggle large shippers are facing as they reorganize the way they are buying freight. Their reaction to the new marketplace has caused an upheaval in the industry, and that’s in part because they have – up to this point – been using brokers as safety nets. When the core carriers fail, they bail to the broker. By then, the market is barren, creating a huge and very expensive spot market.

And this expansive spot market provides drivers with profitable, easy freight. Ask yourself, if drivers can easily find a tractor and a 53’ dry van or reefer, and not have to worry about hazmat, or tank/spill training, or having to climb 13.5’ off the ground to tarp a flatbed or a specialized piece of equipment, why on earth would they? If shippers reorganized efficiently, and put an end to procurement teams focused solely on price and transactions instead of supply chain efficiency, we would have more drivers available and motivated to take time to train and become more valuable, and get paid more.

Until then, those of you shipping specialty freight have to be willing to pay more - a lot more. Capitalism is at work in the marketplace. Driver wages have increased across the board. You’re competing for talent at the moment, and the big fleets are fighting with pay.

That’s not to say there aren’t other things you can do. If you have the privilege to speak with drivers as regularly as we do, you learn that it’s also about how drivers are treated. Be creative, and think of ways to make your enterprise more attractive to drivers. Have a driver lounge that’s nicer than your office. How about a small driver-only gym space?  Offer paid training (non-driving) time, to add more skill and pedigree for the drivers. Consider a salary-plus incentive plan.  Engage drivers. Recognize safety. Offer bonuses for “x” amount of miles without an accident. Celebrate service years. Large truckload carrier, Celadon, is reorganizing, and recently unveiled a granite monument this week at its headquarters, with names of 10+ year drivers etched into the stone! Celebrate drivers and make them love driving for you – and they will.

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