Washington Notebook: Possible policy solutions for driver shortage
Monday, October 31, 2011
The shortage of drivers in the trucking industry is real.
Companies are not overhyping the problem to scare shippers. They truly are having a difficult time finding qualified drivers, especially with tighter monitoring by the Department of Transportation of one’s driving history.
Under the new Compliance Safety Accountability program, drivers receive a personal safety performance score and that score attaches to a motor carrier’s score.
Bad score = tough time getting customers. That’s because shippers don’t want the extra liability if the carrier they use is involved in an accident.
The declining supply of drivers has been a looming issue for years due to the demographics of an aging driver population and the dearth of entrants from the younger generation. We got a reprieve for a while because of the recession, but now trucking companies are busy hauling goods and sometimes they’ve got orders and trucks, but no driver.
Is there a government role, with unemployment so high, to help people get into the trucking industry? This is mostly a market issue, but some trucking executives say that a 2010 law extending unemployment benefits to 99 weeks has acted as a disincentive for people to consider trucking jobs because their take-home pay after expenses isn’t much more than they’d collect from the government.
The law added up to 73 weeks of unemployment benefits backed by the federal government to the traditional 26 weeks of benefits provided by states. The extension is set to expire at the end of the year unless Congress acts. President Obama’s proposed jobs plan seeks to extend the benefits through 2012.
The number of Americans out of work more than six months now stands at over 6.2 million, according to the Labor Department. If Congress doesn’t pass an extension, 2.2 million people will lose their unemployment insurance by February, it says.
The irony of 9.1 percent unemployment and unfilled jobs is not only apparent in the trucking industry.
Apple growers in Washington are also facing a shortage of helping hands to pick the fruit during the height of the harvest season. The state needs about 10,000 more pickers to get the crop to market before freezing temperatures set in. One farmer said he pays $150 per day, but that people aren’t willing to give up their unemployment insurance, according to a report on the CBS Evening News.
Driver training schools are concerned that all the talk in Washington about cutting the deficit could lead to reductions in funding through the Workforce Investment Act that is available to all kinds of vocational schools, including driving academies, as well as for Title IV loans that help students going to college or other long-term education programs. A handful of large driver training schools qualify for these loans because they meet tough licensing standards and students must take a minimum of 600 hours of coursework.
In the past, the American Trucking Associations and others have argued for letting properly trained 18-year-olds become over-the-road drivers. The federal age limit on inter-state trucking is 21 years of age. Advocates note that 18-year-olds can drive farm equipment or trucks in the military and that some states allow them to drive trucks within their states.
“If they can teach a 20-year-old to fly an Apache helicopter they should be able to teach them to drive a truck,” Lana Batts, president of Transport Capital Partners LLC, said in an interview.
Government requirements that drivers speak English and not pose a medical risk, such as being an insulin-dependent diabetic, also restrict the available pool of drivers, although those may be rules that make sense for public safety.
Industry officials broadly agree that trucking is not a family-friendly job. Companies are shifting to shorter length-of-haul business models so that drivers can be home more often.
Women only make up 6 percent of the over-the-road driving force. Attracting them is difficult because child care is difficult to find under the best of circumstances, let alone for many days or an entire week.
Some trucking companies are making a big pitch to recruit recent military veterans. The recent expansion of the GI Bill technically would increase opportunities for veterans to pay for driver schools, but military services are cutting back on reimbursements due to budgetary pressures.
Others, like Con-way, have opened up their own in-house driver training schools instead of relying on driver schools where quality can sometimes be an issue.
Batts points out that the safety crackdown on existing drivers means carriers have to recruit more new drivers who historically have demonstrated higher accident rates.
Don Osterberg, senior vice president for safety and security at Schneider National, says that reducing the age limit or loosening immigration requirements to expand the pool of potential drivers are not the right approach.
“I think it’s a horrible idea,” he said of allowing 18-year-olds behind the wheel of a big rig. Teenagers tend to engage in more risky behavior, he explained.
“And I say that with the full recognition that anyone we bring into our industry as a commercial truck driver is essentially having to change vocations from the time they were 17 or 18 until they turn 21. But I can show you compelling data that would suggest from a safety perspective employing 18-year-old commercial drivers for Class 8 tractors is a bad idea,” Osterberg said Oct. 5 during a panel discussion at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals’ annual conference in Philadelphia.
He and others say the solution is to change the work so it is more attractive to a broader demographic.
“Let’s make the work-life balance reasonable. Let’s treat drivers better, get them home more frequently, have them live a normal life-style and then adjust pay as necessary,” the former Army officer said. – Eric Kulisch