Editor’s note: Written by Roy Rosell, head of product marketing, NEXT Trucking. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Suez Canal blockage demonstrated the importance and fragility of our global supply chain.
These disruptions have fostered a greater focus on investment and technologies by private and public entities looking to alleviate similar future shocks. While these initiatives will help the global economy in the future, certain areas of the supply chain, such as trucking, still face crucial issues here and now.
The trucking industry’s biggest challenge is the shortage of truck drivers to keep up with demand. It’s not new, growing over the past few decades, but the problem came to a head as COVID-19 ran rampant across the world. Because this shortage has been an issue for many years, it’s surprising that there hasn’t been more progress to attract and retain labor. Could it be that many see truck driving as a thankless profession? There are players out there that look to take a “driver’s first” approach, but as many know, this is a massive industry, and this approach is not the current standard.
What can shippers and motor carriers do to make the truck driving profession as attractive as possible? The answer has always been simple: pay more, treat drivers better, and eliminate punitive fines that eat away at earnings. Industry stakeholders have said this in the past. Although the industry has progressed, there’s plenty more that to do on this front.
While salaries are starting to increase, they are moving from a low base. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the base salary for an over-the-road trucker was less than $50,000 a year ago. The branding of the industry also is a problem. Younger people just aren’t interested. A lot of that has to do with negative word of mouth surrounding the profession, as well as the misconception that trucking is an industry for older individuals. And with the average age of a trucker pegging at 48, retaining talent is more critical than ever.
There are plenty of worries for drivers ranging from truck conditions, facility locations, gas, and hours restrictions, let alone finding food or taking a bathroom break. The pandemic exacerbated many of these anxieties. In addition, long hours on the road and less-than-friendly treatment at ports and distribution centers can wear truckers down. Government regulations and incentives, such as preventing young drivers from getting a CDL until they are 21-years-old or a lack of hazard pay, divert this talent to other blue-collar professions. The industry would lose a lot less labor to occupations such as construction if drivers could spend more nights at home, get more respectful treatment, more resource support and access to government programs such as education assistance, hazard pay, and COVID relief.
There’s the quick and dirty version of the problem we currently face. Despite this, technology can reduce these burdens and make the lives of our valuable drivers easier. One way is to make it easier and more efficient for drivers to find, book, and successfully deliver jobs. Calling various brokers, bidding, and negotiating is very energy and time-consuming. A lower touch, higher speed alternative will become the industry standard so that drivers can choose or get assigned loads based on their preferences of time, distance from home, commodity type, mode, and so forth, while not having to make any calls.
Another path to unburdening drivers is to continue innovating automation at various points of the supply chain. First off, automation at the ports to move the in and out of terminals seamlessly, as well as the movement of containers on and off ships and into the correct locations to optimize pickup times is essential. A longer-term option is autonomous trucks to support carriers on strategic parts of the journey, but the most obvious fit would be to have these trucks perform long hauls. The benefit being that autonomous trucks could travel during off-peak hours, reducing congestion on the roads during peak traffic hours. From a work-life standpoint, drivers wouldn’t need to operate long-haul trucks that take them from their families for weeks at a time. Instead, drivers can remain much closer to home and take on less grueling, local and short-haul work.
These more advanced forms of transportation automation will take a longer time to implement safely. By addressing driver relationships, improving processes, and removing menial tasks through technology, trucking companies can address driver shortages through one of the oldest forms of marketing there is word of mouth. If your company treats drivers well and pushes for a better work environment at ports and distribution centers, then workers will spread the word and have more drivers lining up to work for you.
On an industry level, there needs to be further analysis of the status quo, with the end goal of making improvements from a process, tech, and human relations perspective. Drivers need to be able to focus on driving safely. When there are rude employees at warehouses, archaic processes to complete a load, and massive lines at the port due to process inefficiencies, then there will be miserable drivers. From a drayage standpoint, port automation, the free and open sharing of port and terminal data, and the analysis of what causes congestion and its subsequent solution will go a long way in making the truck driving profession more attractive.
Continued investment from public and private entities will help drive this transformation. More than ever, global investors and stakeholders recognize the importance of logistics and the value of human capital in tandem with modernized technology. The time will come where the state of the industry isn’t facing these issues, but until then, there’s work that still needs to be done.
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