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Carrier CEOs see number of driver applicants dropping dramatically

Max Fuller, chairman and CEO of U.S. Xpress, says his company has seen a 20-25 percent drop in driver applicants in the past four weeks.

By LYNDON FINNEY
The Trucker Staff

3/5/2013

LAS VEGAS — In his letter to the Roman church, the Apostle Paul dedicated an entire chapter to his desire that the Israelites hear the Gospel.

Midway through the chapter, he finally asks the critical question, “and how shall they hear without a preacher?”

Delegates to the annual convention of the Truckload Carriers Association might be wondering the same thing about the movement of freight in the United States.

After listening to a panel of highly-respected company executives talk about the future in terms of tonnage, freight and capacity, they were left with the daunting thought, “and how shall we deliver freight without a driver?”

“The driver situation is the worst we’ve seen,” Max Fuller, chairman and CEO of U.S. Xpress Enterprises, told a room full of fellow trucking stakeholders. “It’s been tightening for a while, and in the last four weeks our applicants have dropped 20-25 percent. We were concerned it was something our company did so we contacted other carriers and they’ve experienced the same thing.”

Werner Enterprises hires a mix of trucking school graduates and experienced drivers and the company’s applicant pool has been down on both fronts, Derek Leathers, Werner’s president and COO said.

“We’ve been fortunate that it hasn’t elevated to that 20 percent level, but it’s a double-digit type of increase that really started last year leading into this year. I agree with Max that the driver shortage is upon us and it’s going to be a tough road and we have to work on the back door in terms of retention as well as making it a more attractive job for the drivers.”

The driver pool is tightening, “no doubt about it,” says Dan England, chairman of C.R. England. “We’ve been a member of TCA for 35 years and we’ve been having these exact same discussions for all those years. But it has worsened, no doubt about it.”

Fuller said U.S. Xpress executives believe a lot of drivers may have left the industry to go into construction with housing improving.

“We think that’s only going to intensify as the year goes on, especially if the Hours of Service changes. The new HOS rule is probably going to move utilization as much as an 11-12 percent reduction,” he said.

Leathers noted the outlook for a new driving pool is not bright.

“If you look at enrollments across the truck driving school network they are down,” Leathers said. “The funding coming out of Washington is down for those specific types of roles so I think we as an industry are going to have to find more creative ways to entice people to want to become a truck driver.”

England said the industry had talked for years about getting more money to drivers, and “I think we have largely failed. You look at what we are paying them now compared to what we were paying them in 1980 and I don’t think they are making as much money as they did then. If we haven’t succeeded in pushing through enough increases to pass on increased compensation for our drivers, at least what we must do is try to find ways to make the existing jobs better, more compatible with home life and that sort of thing,” which he said C.R. England was doing.

The drivers’ quality of life plus the regulations seem “to have them fed up,” Fuller said.

“Some of our older drivers have decided to retire because they felt like they were being harassed by all the new regulations.”

Fuller echoed England’s belief that driver pay really hasn’t gone up proportionally with the cost of living.

“If you look at the rate we charge at U.S. Xpress today it’s only 38 cents per mile non inflation adjusted above that 1984 level,” he said. “Therein lies the problem. We are going to charge what the shipper will pay and if they are not going to pay more we can’t pass it onto the driver. But I think we are going into a cycle here that if a shipper wants his product moved it is going to be paramount that he looks at what the true cost is going to be and probably pay a higher rate to keep his products moving to his markets.”

Leathers said he hosts a monthly million-mile driver breakfast.

“Some of these drivers have been around in many cases 30 years in the industry; they are throwing their hands up and saying, ‘I’m done. If I’m not done today, I’m done very shortly,’” he said. “And especially as they look at this latest wave of Hours of Service impact. My bigger concern is the quality of men and women in this industry that we lose because they simply choose not to participate any longer with some of the intrusions. Then as we go forward, what is the impact of HOS on the fleet? We think it’s a high single digit productivity impact if not greater.”

The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at editor@thetrucker.com.

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