Small fleet operators are not suffering from the driver shortage nearly as much as the big trucking firms.
“There is an inherent desire among truck drivers to want to be your own boss,” said Jeff Tucker, chief executive of Tucker Company Worldwide Inc., a freight broker in Haddonfield, N.J. “We can get people to drive trucks if the money is there. And the money increasingly is there.”
The price of shipping contracts has jumped, running 8 to 10 percent higher over the same time last year because there’s more demand to move freight than there are drivers and trucks.
Spot freight prices have risen even higher, as much as 30 percent year over year.
The number of small trucking firms grew 4 percent in the last year, and fleets with more than 2,000 trucks grew 2 percent, according to Avery Vise, vice president of trucking research at Bloomington, Ind.-based FTR Transportation Intelligence.
The number of new drivers working in fleets of fewer than 100 trucks grew 322,000 between 2012 and 2018. The number of new drivers at fleets with more than 500 trucks rose 153,000 in the same six-year period, according to Tucker.
Big shippers “would be salivating to get their hands on those drivers, but they can’t,” Tucker said.
One reason that small fleets are growing is that they’re less selective, said Brent Nussbaum, chief executive of Hudson, Ill.-based Nussbaum Transportation, which has 400 trucks and 900 trailers.
“A lot of smaller fleets are willing to take just about anybody that comes along,” Nussbaum said. “We’re looking for a high-caliber driver.”
Still, some are looking to tap smaller fleets. Shippers such as apparel maker SanMar Corp. are carving out recurring routes for smaller fleets.
“If you have some of the dedicated runs like we do and you can match them with a niche carrier, it’s a great opportunity,” said John Janson, SanMar’s global logistics director.
SanMar added three dedicated routes for small fleets in the last year, Janson said. It would like to add more, but it faces logistical challenges. For example, it needs to stage multiple trailers in certain locations so drivers can drop one load and pick up another.
The company needs such integration to attract drivers, he said.
Drivers also are becoming more proactive. Independent truckers and those at smaller motor carriers
are carefully picking routes via software that gets them the best rates.
That’s allowed them to level the playing field with larger competitors, Tucker said. A small shipper now has access to data that lets them take advantage of rate trends. Previously they often relied on outdated pricing data that limited their ability to get their best rates.
Shippers need to get used to paying drivers more, said Don Daseke, chief executive of Addison, Texas-based Daseke Inc., which owns 19 flatbed and specialized transportation companies with 6,000 trucks and 11,000 trailers.
“The average flatbed driver who makes $60,000 or $65,000 this year will be making $100,000 a year, five years from now,” Daseke said. “Attracting drivers is challenge one, two and three in our business.”
“You attract them by paying them enough money to lure them away from other jobs,” he said.
Signing bonuses and better pay also prompt many drivers to jump from one large carrier to another.
The overheated freight market is “desperate” for drivers who can pass a drug test and have a good safety record, said Tom Albrecht, chief financial officer of Celadon Group Inc., an Indianapolis-based truck load and logistics company.
Celadon abandoned its driver training academy last year after it yielded only 75 hirable drivers of 2,200 trained, Albrecht said.
Instead, Celadon now offers drivers a week of vacation and a $1,000 bonus for every 33,000 miles driven.
Other carriers are pitching higher pay and benefits. US Xpress offers free online college tuition for drivers and a dependent. Walmart is advertising average annual income of $86,000 plus bonuses for several hundred drivers to join its private fleet.