Finding enough drivers to keep trucks on the road has long been a problem for trucking companies, and that problem is only expected to get worse. But the resulting capacity crunch could be very positive for fleets, allowing them to raise their pricing, according to John Larkin, managing director Stifel Nicolaus & Co.
Speaking at TMW System’s user conference in Orlando Sept. 14, Larkin said 2014 was a “great time to be in trucking,” because of a capacity crunch created by bad weather and other factors.
“There was a lot of freight and not enough trucks,” he said.
So far this year, freight has been a little softer and “shifted from third gear to second." But a number of factors are combining to create what he terms the “mother of all capacity shortages,” which will put fleets in more control of their pricing.
Factors contributing to the capacity shortage, he said, include regulatory issues such as CSA, hours-of-service change, an electronic logging device mandate, changes in drug testing procedures using hair samples, a possible speed limit mandate, new health requirements for drivers, the new drug and alcohol testing database, new requirements for driver training and increased minimum insurance requirements. All of these factors, Larkin said, will exacerbate the driver shortage and reduce productivity by requiring more drivers to move the same freight.
On the other side of the scale, factors that might help increase capacity are immigration reform, longer combination vehicles, allowing Mexican trucks expanded operations, more efficient packaging that can allow as much as 30% more freight per trailer, widespread adoption of network optimization technologies, and increased allowable gross vehicle weights. And down the road, perhaps, autonomous trucks.
However, many of the things that can relieve the shortage will be politically difficult to achieve, Larkin noted.
The driver shortage has been well documented. Even fleets that offer top pay and benefits are not seeing an increase in new applicants, although they have reported better retention rates, according to Larkin. This shows that “paying more won’t fix the problem,” he said.
Much of the problems attracting drivers stems from demographic trends – the younger generations are smaller than the now-retiring Baby Boomers, and many younger people today won’t consider trucking as a job.
The quality of life that truckers experience is another obstacle. “It’s a tough job,” Larkin said. Drivers are micromanaged. They are constantly monitored. They are under perpetual regulation. Not to mention they are away from home for extended periods.
There are health issues as well. Drivers tend to get less exercise, they don’t eat the best food, they are lonely and they have a lower life expectancy than the average U.S. worker, Larkin said.
The result of all this will be a capacity crunch, which combined with increased regulation and rising costs, will drive many smaller carriers out of business. Larkin said he expected there would be more consolidation as larger carriers snap up the failing smaller ones.
The bottom line, he said, will be a long period of capacity restraint, which should be “a golden time for the truckers who survive."