NEWS & REPORTS

Aesop and the Truck Driver

Dec 9, 2017 | Articles

I offer, for your consideration, Number 87 in the Perry Index of Aesop’s Fables. Not a fan? I bet you are. We know it as “The Goose Who Laid the Golden Eggs”.

The story tells us of a certain man and his wife who had come into possession of an amazing creature, a goose who could lay an egg each day. Unlike other geese, this particular goose’s eggs were made of gold. Each day, the couple would gather another golden egg. In the fullness of time, they became so overcome with avarice that their impatience with the single-egg-per-day rate led them to kill the goose, carving up the bird for what they thought would be a greater wealth of unlaid gold within. We know the story. It’s been part of our culture for many years. So, other than my latter-day wish to make up for my misspent literary-youth, why would we care?

 

Consider that, for several years, the transportation industry, and the trucking segment in particular, has been watching as certain metrics tell a tale of the growing truck driver shortage in this country. As this shortage increases, there will undoubtedly be ripple effects throughout the economy3. For those who deal with this issue head-on, the pressures of filling trucks with qualified drivers, meeting the demands of home-time, pay, and benefits, while also providing the allures of travel, control of the work, and not having to punch a clock are a constant balancing act.

 

Enter economics, and the pesky need of a company to turn a profit, and the whole driver-recruitment mess begins to resemble more a shark feeding frenzy than anything else.

For many in the industry, it has become increasing more difficult to entice new driver applicants because the romance of the open road cannot compare to the hassles of a lifestyle which requires families to be separated for long periods of time.

 

Over the decades, trucking-writ-large has taken the easiest path, trying to maintain the relationships with shippers at the expense of their relationships with their drivers. Until the Hours of Service (HOS) changes in 2011, and even beyond when electronic logging devices came into being, it was not unusual for some motor carriers to push drivers to meet at-times unrealistic, even illegal shipper-service requirements by instructing the driver to “Just get it there!” The driver would have been tempted to sacrifice safety on the altar of making a buck! This was not fair to the driver, the motor carriers, or even the shippers, as eventually this system was going to be untenable – and indeed it necessitated the HOS rewrite and introduction of newer technology.

 

One serious issue that is beginning to come to the fore, however, is that shippers are seeing the results of letting truck drivers carry the pressure for what ought to have been a combined motor carrier/shipper conversation. As shippers turned a blind-eye to safe and legal hauling – “hauling the freight” being what was felt to be the responsibility of the trucking companies alone – the once-prized trucking lifestyle of seeing the open road, and having a level of freedom that most industries cannot offer began to quickly pale.

 

Trucking over the past years has lost its allure, and it has become very difficult for motor carriers to attract and keep safe, qualified drivers. A younger generation of prospects looking at truck driving as a potential career sees that truck driver wages, when accounting for inflation, have not appreciably increased over the last several decades. “Who in their right mind,” they ask, “would put up with making no more money for so long?” It’s a question that shippers have not been forced to ponder, possibly believing that it isn’t their problem, or concern. They continue to ignore it at their own peril.

 

Further, there is a patchwork of concerns which tend to work against directly addressing the driver shortage. For one, the industry, and its stakeholders, have a built-in morale problem. States allow an applicant to obtain a commercial driver license (CDL) and drive across state lines when the applicant turns 21 years of age. Insurance requirements, however, roundly refuse to provide coverage until the driver turns 23. We do not see a large group of young people patiently waiting until they turn 23 to hire on to a trucking company, or buy their own truck as an independent contractor. Life happens while we’re waiting for something better – so those young people will pursue other employment.

 

If it doesn’t work out, the trucking industry may then be able to attract them as drivers. The harm, however, is that, by the time applicants qualify for insurance, or large motor carriers are willing to take a chance on them, they have already failed in at least one other career option. In casual conversations among industry professionals, we often hear how the current group of drivers “Isn’t the same quality” as in previous years. Is it any wonder? We beg for new drivers, but we tell applicants not to apply until they fail in something else first. Then we decry the poor morale or attitude of “kids these days”.

 

So, all of that seems like an internecine fight within trucking. Shippers should be able to stand outside the fray like they always have, right? Well, let’s reconsider our pal, the aforementioned goose. She labors away, giving up a wealth in golden eggs. She gives-and-gives-and-gives, and the man and his wife just take-and-take-and-take. Consider, shippers make a variety of amazing things. The ability to create new goods is, by any stretch of the imagination, almost miraculous. How, though, do shippers intend to get their products to market? We have seen the studies which show that 70% of all goods are transported on trucks. The importance of a safe and secure supply-chain is no longer at issue, but care for the truck driver isn’t just a trucking company issue.

 

What can make this the shippers’ failure is if the shippers don’t realize that the basic conditions have changed. Thanks to in-cab technology which allows for electronic logging devices, a move roundly favored by industry leaders, gone are the days when a driver is tempted to “just get it there”. Shippers can no longer hide behind the motor carrier, pointing fingers at trucking companies when there are service failures, accidents, or violations due to breaking HOS regulations. For generations, the goose (driver pool) has been slowly strangled because the man and his wife (shippers) wanted more and more gold (profits).

 

If shippers refuse to see how the driver shortage (smaller pool of available drivers), technological limitations (ELDs and the clear and objective record of the driver’s duty status and available driving hours), and wage stagnation have killed the goose, they will not have shipping capacity to move their goods to market. Unlike Aesop, though, our goose doesn’t need to stay dead. It is within our own grasp to effect the necessary changes which can reach everyone’s goals:

  • Regulatory/insurance: Although the current flood of exciting technologies which could improve efficiencies (vehicle platooning, “driverless” trucks {DLVs}, etc.) is sexy, and garners attention, we are not taking full advantage of graduated CDLs, or communicating the need with insurance partners to allow for the introduction of younger truck driver professionals.
  • Motor carriers: Wage stagnation must be addressed. Many trucking companies are reviewing this topic, but for those who aren’t, this is a wage-fairness issue. When a current driver makes no more money than did his father in the same job, carriers cannot hide behind supplements. In-cab television, more amenities, or other comfort-items do not pay the bills for the trucker and his/her family. Don’t forget comfort upgrades when providing an improving wage, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that anything else replaces pay.
  • Shippers: The current driver shortage cannot be seen as “trucking’s problem”. It isn’t a situation which exists in isolation. As driver wages must improve, as other technologies come on-line (the afore-mentioned platooning or DLVs), these will need financing. Trucking is a very low-margin business. Shippers ought not be expected to open the purse strings and be taken advantage of, however, but when shippers’ personnel fight against driver wage increases, one must ask whether we are being intellectually honest in the broader discussion. Of course, customers do not like paying more for goods (open disclosure: my family and I do not look forward to any inflationary pressures or higher prices), but shippers cannot hide themselves from being included in the conversation, especially if it is their hands around the goose’s neck.

Each stakeholder has some responsibility. No one part created the condition in which trucking finds itself. No one part can solve it on its own. It is incumbent upon each part to be an honest actor, working together to address the problems. The real-world will continue; trucking will likely remain a low-margin industry, shippers will continue to negotiate rates, even aggressively, but if the driver’s needs were to also be a central part of that discussion, since it is the driver who accomplishes the actual work anyway, there could be a “trickle-UP” economy which benefits those upstream.

Gone are the days when shippers can pass along responsibility to motor carriers, who in turn pass-along the pressure for performance to truck drivers. That does nothing more than blame the goose for being such a poor provider in the first place.

 

Steve Bredigkeit, CDS

Director, Boyd Brothers Transportation, Inc.

Birmingham, AL

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