Guest Column

Shortage of quality truck drivers threatens to put brakes on economic growth

September 13, 2013
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A freight survey of dozens of manufacturing, logistics and trucking companies conducted by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce showed that one of the key threats to our continued economic growth is a shortage of quality truck drivers.

Some estimates forecast a nationwide shortage of truck drivers as high as 100,000 or more next year. An estimate from the American Trucking Association predicts this number will grow to more than a quarter-million within a decade. This will not only hamper the trucking industry, but the economy at large. Competitive and efficient transportation is critical in supporting Michigan’s largest economic drivers — manufacturing and agriculture. It is also important for keeping costs down for consumers.

“A driver shortage means that truck availability will be diminished; diminished capacity means pricing will be affected. As a manufacturer, we are constantly trying to monitor and lower costs to stay competitive in our industry,” said Ric Bouwma, director of materials at Lacks Enterprises Inc. in Kentwood.

Those inside the industry point to numerous causes for the lack of new drivers being attracted to the trade. Chief among them: a poor perception of trucking, heavy regulation, difficulties with new hiring due to insurance policies and the retirement of veteran drivers.

The chamber’s Transportation Committee is currently working with area businesses to address this issue by building awareness of the shortage, connecting businesses with trucking schools, and taking a closer look at the root causes of the industry-wide shortage.

Some of the solutions identified by this group include:

Addressing the insurance issue. Currently, insurance for drivers with less than two years of experience is prohibitively expensive to all but the largest of trucking firms. Finding a way for small and medium-size carriers to be able to afford to hire young talent is imperative.

Increased flexibility in Hours-of-Service regulations. Safety is an important aspect of this industry, but the stringent HOS requirements are frustrating to many trucking veterans and a barrier to new hires. These complex federal regulations include rules on breaks, driving hours, total hours, weekly hours, restarts and more. According to drivers, the application of these rules is not necessarily reducing tired drivers. The rules also do not reflect the uncertainty of driver interactions with customers and the unpredictability of wait times at docks. With even more restrictive policies taking effect, drivers will be able to conduct less work — forcing companies to hire more drivers, which are widely unavailable.

Collaboration. Stronger relationships between trucking companies and their customers that lead to decreased wait time at docks will save time and money. Improved training for truckers, administrative staff and dock workers will not only improve efficiency but also the experience. Drivers who sit idle at a dock are wasting valuable driving hours and sustain a kind of double jeopardy — not only are they not being paid while waiting for a load, but they are also losing hours that could be spent on the road. This understandably creates dissatisfaction and frustration for drivers.

Improving the driver experience.The first three possible solutions will all contribute to enhancing a driver’s experience and improving the perception of this trade. To reduce turnover and attract job-seekers, a long-term effort must be made to restore the image of the industry.

This profession has a proud history of respect and teamwork, and it has given many Americans worthy careers. Many of these jobs in West Michigan have competitive pay, benefits and opportunities for bonuses, yet positions are still going unfilled. This much is clear: The shortage is a growing threat to Michigan’s economic revitalization, and we must work together to attract young talent to the trucking industry and rebuild the image of the profession.

William Berenbrock Jr. is vice president of Rockford-based W.B. Haulers & Storage, and Joshua Lunger is public policy coordinator for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

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