Any time you’re having a meal away from home, it’s been delivered by the members of the International Foodservice Distributors Association. The group represenst food service distributors – the companies that distribute to restaurants, hospitals and schools. It's an industry that in the past hasn't had to worry much about the driver shortage. That's changed.
We interviewed Jonathan Eisen, senior vice president of IFDA, about the foodservice distribution industry's top priorities when it comes to the transportation of its products. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
HDT: What’s the state of the industry for IFDA members?
Eisen: They’re doing well. It’s a $280 billion industry; we are the only trade association that represents the industry, and our focus is providing advocacy, education and research, for and on behalf of the industry.
There are always some challenges. I think drivers is the single biggest challenge they’re facing. The business climate certainly, growing economy, reduced regulations, at least right now I think it’s certainly a very good business climate and our members are taking advantage of that.
HDT: You are big supporters of the DRIVE-Safe legislation (the Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy Act) allowing younger drivers to operate in interstate commerce. Why is it so important to your members?
Eisen: Starting about a year and a half to two years ago, it became very clear to our members that the driver shortage was having a major impact on them, both in their ability to hire drivers and to service customers. And just as critically, they were seeing a lot of pressure on inbound freight. The driver shortage was a critical part of that. This is one of the primary obstacles to bringing new individuals into the industry. While you can get a CDL at 18 in 48 out of 50 states, you can’t operate in interstate commerce until you’re 21. The average age of a truck driver in this country is 49. The average age of a driver entering CDL school is 35. So we’re going to need to bring younger drivers into the industry. It’s very clear that we aren’t attracting a new generation of drivers and one of the reasons is we can’t recruit them when they are younger.
We average about $64,000 a year in pay in our industry; so this is a very good job for drivers. In our business, where drivers unload the truck and deliver the product into the customer facility, it is certainly is a younger person’s job. And so the ability to recruit these individuals and bring them into the industry to replace the drivers that are leaving the industry or those that can no longer do the job required in the foodservice industry is critical.
HDT: In the past, the driver shortage tended to be felt more by long haul truckload carriers, and traditionally was less felt by carriers such as your members. That’s changed?
Eisen: It is certainly more difficult to find long haul drivers. Turnover in that segment is far greater than with our membership -- which is primarily local delivery, although we do have some members with a larger distribution area. But I think certainly it’s been something we are feeling as well now, even in short haul, that the marketplace has tightened significantly. Because our drivers have to unload the product we’re talking about a much smaller subset of people who are physically ably to do this job. And also you are the primary contact for the company with your customers, so there’s a customer service aspect, as well. For our members, you’re shrinking the pie of potential people every time you put a new requirement on there.
HDT: Tell us about the recent poll you commissioned on the younger drivers issue.
Eisen: We were very pleased to see that that 86% of people surveyed supported the DRIVE-Safe Act.
We explained the issue that you can get a CDL at 18 but can’t drive in interstate commerce till you’re 21. I think we discussed issues around the driver shortage. Only a third of Americans understand there is a driver shortage. Once we discussed, that they understood it has a direct impact on consumers. If freight doesn’t move well it’s going to impact consumers in the long run.
HDT: What is your response to critics who contend that younger drivers are unsafe?
Eisen: What we’re trying to accomplish here is to bring them into the industry safely. In order to go through the program outlined in the bill they will have to have a CDL, and next year the entry level driver training rule comes into place. So younger, entry-level drivers will have been through a significant amount of training already before they can even begin this program. The bill would require a two-step program that a driver would have to go through with an experienced driver in the cab for 400 hours of on duty time, and 240 hours of driving time, to ensure they are entering the industry safely. Imagine California; they can now legally drive produce from northern California all the way down to San Diego. So our goal is to help ensure they are operating safely before they are operating in interstate commerce.
HDT: What are some other driver issues your members are dealing with?
Eisen: One issue is concern as cannabis becomes legalized in many states. I think this goes a little bit to both DRIVE-Safe and the driver shortage. Obviously these drivers are subject to DOT drug testing requirements and there is concern that it will shrink the number of individuals who are able to pass the rather stringent requirements of DOT drug and alcohol testing to be able to drive. I don’t have any facts or figures around it but I hear this from our members and from other industries as well. It definitely is cutting across the transportation environment. We just did a piece for our members to help them understand the current state of the law around cannabis. For employees that are subject to DOT testing, none of the law changes in the cannabis legal states change. But for other employees there are now certainly have been some court cases already in certain states, primarily around medical marijuana, and drug free workplace requirements. And there have been a few cases where prospective employees have been told of drug testing requirements and told the hiring person that they have a medical marijuana certificate, and subsequently when they weren't hired, gone to court -- in Connecticut, Massachusetts and a few other places. At least in a few cases we’ve seen some of the plaintiffs have won.
HDT: Obviously food safety is another important issue for your members. How has implementation of the recent food safety rules gone?
Eisen: That’s been an interesting process. Overall we’ve been pleased with the way FDA has handled FSMA implementation. The rules that they implemented were flexible, they were risk based, and so they really allowed distributors to focus on the critical areas where there was actual risk in distribution. In distribution that’s a relatively small area, primarily focused around things like cold chain and segregation of allergens and things like that. So overall, because the law was well written, it was a very good process. We worked very closely with FDA throughout the rulemaking process and they listened to our suggestions and in a lot of cases took our direct suggestions into the final rule.
HDT: Speaking of regulations, the final ELD (electronic logging device) mandate rules have a deadline of this December. Is it your sense that IFDA members are ready?
Eisen: Most our members, because they’re local delivery and efficiency is so important, already had routing devices. So I don’t hear much about it from them. I do think certainly, it did exacerbate the capacity crunch; to what degree I'm not in any position to say. Certainly the driver shortage got more attention when the rule came in place.
I hope the ELD rule will have a positive outcome in increased compliance. We’ve seen that in all the federal government information. And we are hopeful that will allow FMCSA to revisit the HOS rules and create a little more flexibility with them. We'd like to see small changes here and there – for instance, the 30-minute rest break in our industry has always been problematic, because our members make multiple stops in the course of the day. That’s a small change that would make a big difference for us. Certainly we’ve heard the refrain about detention issues; perhaps some flexibility in the time spent while the truck is loaded or unloaded could be spent as off-duty time as apposed to that hard 14-hour clock. We hope to see rules a little bit down the road that will increase that flexibility.
HDT: Any other issues on members’ minds?
Eisen: I think transportation is really top of mind for us and the DRIVE-Safe Act is our top legislative goal this year. We're encouraged that we’ll be able to find a way to move the bill over the next year and a half plus in this Congress.