You may have seen some interesting news recently regarding plans to use liquefied natural gas to fuel trucks. PRnewswire reported that Shell and its affiliates have signed a memorandum of understanding with TravelCenters of America (TA) to sell liquefied natural gas to heavy-duty road transport customers in the U.S. through TA’s existing nationwide network of full-service fueling centers.
This potential alliance with TA would enable Shell to deliver LNG fuel to customers who want a competitively priced fuel option to help meet increasingly stringent air-quality emission standards, says Elen Phillips, vice president, Shell Fuels Sales & Marketing North America, in the article.
But other news this week prompts the question: Will there be enough drivers for such trucks? That’s because, as a widely covered story notes, a worsening shortage of truck drivers makes it increasingly difficult to find drivers. A story carried by many sources, but which I saw on the DenverPost, notes that despite a national unemployment rate around 8 percent, trucking companies are struggling to recruit and retain enough drivers.
Aging drivers retire, says Charlie Gray, owner of Carolina Trucking Academy, Raleigh, N.C., says in the article. But for every driver that goes out the back door, there better be a driver coming in the front door. There aren’t a lot of people coming in the front door now, he says.
The shortage is good news for those looking for work in the industry. Companies desperate for quality drivers have begun offering sign-on bonuses, higher salaries, and safety bonuses. Yet there’s still a national shortage, conservatively estimated, of at least 200,000 workers, says David Heller, director of safety and policy at the Truckload Carriers Association.
It seems the occupation doesn’t lure young people because long-haul-trucking careers often require drivers to be away from home for weeks at a time. Charles Clowdis, managing director of transportation industry services at IHS Global Insight, explains it this way in the Denver Post article: You’re away from home; and it’s somewhat of an unset schedule. You may leave on Monday, get somewhere Thursday, and Friday be sent in the total opposite direction, he says.
Another problem is that despite the current unemployment rate, many unemployed construction and factory workers simply can’t afford the $4,000 to $6,000 cost of a six-week driver-training course. Although most companies will reimburse drivers for that cost once they are hired, the drivers do need to pay the cost upfront—and many potential drivers cannot afford the cost or they can’t get student loans to cover the fee.
Other problems are that truck drivers must be at least 21, so many 18-year-old high school graduates who might consider trucking, instead choose to pursue other trades. Secondly, the government began publicizing the safety ratings of trucking companies 18 months ago, prompting some carriers to hire only drivers with unblemished records, which further narrows the pool of qualified applicants.
Finally, new government regulations that limit drivers’ hours and monitor drivers for safety violations have exacerbated the shortage, says Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations, which put the industry’s annual turnover rate at 88 percent in December. In the Denver Post story, Costello says the safety move will force companies to hire more drivers, which in turn, will create even more demand.
The result is that rising wages and truck prices—which have increased as much as 40 percent over the past few years due to modernized engines optimized to meet tougher emissions rules—are driving freight costs higher. The shortage of drivers itself effectively limits truck capacity and will help push up freight rates by 2 percent to 5 percent this year, says Benjamin Hartford, an analyst with research firm R.W. Baird, in a recent USAtoday article.
So this looks like a promising time for young—or even older--workers interested in a career driving trucks. On the other hand, it certainly appears freight costs will continue to rise steadily.