The supply chain — the pipeline that delivers everything from the latest Lego sets to iPads and microchips — has been choked in recent months.
The reason? Pick one — the COVID-19 pandemic, warehouse worker shortages, a surge in consumer spending, or a shortage of truck drivers.
That last one, a truck driver shortage, may be the toughest of all to analyze. It can also lead to heated debate among many trucking industry leaders.
At the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), the words “shortage” and “drivers” don’t mix well at all.
“Let’s be clear, the current supply chain crisis is not due to a shortage of truck drivers!” OOIDA’s president, Todd Spencer, wrote emphatically in an e-mailed statement on the issue. “Because the real bottlenecks in the supply chain occur at pickup and delivery points, adding more trucks and drivers will simply makes the lines longer, NOT faster.”
On the counter argument, Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), told CNN in a recent interview the trucking industry is short 80,000 drivers.
That’s a 30% increase from before the pandemic, when the industry already faced a labor shortage of 61,500 drivers,” Spear said.
Spencer said the global supply shortage has forced some truckers off the road, and that drivers are “experiencing the domino effects of supply and staffing shortages, which are preventing them from complying with federal regulations. Examples include drug and alcohol testing delays and difficulties finding replacement electronic logging devices, DEF filters, and CPAP machines. We encourage the U.S. Department of Transportation and other agencies to begin making some emergency allowances to keep safe, qualified drivers in business.”
Spencer went on to say that truckers have been working “tirelessly to keep the country safe and productive throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They have already been operating around the clock but are often restricted by factors beyond their control such as excessive detention time and the lack of readily available, safe parking for their trucks.
“These problems must finally be addressed if the (Biden) administration hopes to implement any significant supply chain solutions,” he continued. “Most of what we are seeing is not a surprise to our members, who have been plagued with dysfunction in the supply chain for decades. It’s not realistic to expect the supply chain will suddenly operate efficiently on a 24/7 schedule when drivers aren’t being fully paid for their time.”
Even though there are supply chain issues surrounding many tangible goods, Americans continued to spend at a solid clip in September.
Retail sales rose a seasonally adjusted 0.7% in September from the month before, the U.S. Commerce Department said.
That was a stronger showing than expected. Yet there are lingering concerns as to how resilient shoppers will be if prices continue to head north and shortages lead to frustration as the nation heads into the crucial holiday season.
Consumer spending drives about 70% of all U.S. economic activity, and a sustained recovery from a pandemic-induced recession will require their participation.
There is no evidence that Americans are pulling back, however, and spending last month was heavy everywhere, from clothing, sporting goods and toy stores to car lots.
Economists have forecast at least a 7% increase in holiday sales, but the pandemic has made predictions more difficult. Steady sales rates that have been witnessed in clothing, tech or other goods are not assured due to worker shortages and festering supply chain issues.
The global supply chain is so scrambled, many producers are leaving the bulk of their goods in China as they wait for shipping costs to retreat.
In addition, hiring has slowed in the past two months, even as employers post a near-record number of open jobs. About 3 million people who lost jobs and stopped looking for work since the pandemic have yet to resume job searches, according to recent economic data.
“The main concern now is that supply chain disruptions and microchip shortages appear to be spreading, limiting selection and tamping down goods demand,” wrote Sal Guatieri, senior economist and director at BMO Capital Markets, in a report published in mid-October. “Meantime, services demand is getting held back by labor shortages, notably in restaurants. Demand isn’t the problem, supply is. “
President Joe Biden told Americans recently his administration is confident that inflation is under control and announced a deal to expand operations at the Port of Los Angeles to help address supply issues.
The will to spend on those goods is there, as evidenced in September; however the month also had the weakest sales growth since March, Saunders said. Momentum will not continue indefinitely; rather it will continue to trend down until it reaches more normalized levels, he said.
Back to trucking, Long Beach, California-based Danlerie Freight addressed the supply chain issue in a post to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) website after DOT officials asked trucking companies and drivers for input on the issue.
Danlerie’s statement described the many steps involved in loading and offloading shipping containers to big rigs. Those steps, the company says, lead to bigger delays.
“The ports have instituted an appointment requirement at all ocean container terminals,” the Danlerie’s statement reads. “Once (a) container is empty at the customer, you must first find a terminal that will accept the empty container based on the size, ocean carrier and chassis type … if you can meet all of the requirements, you must check to see if an appointment is available at the terminal to return that empty; if none are available, then you must take (the) empty container to your truck yard, where it sits until you can make an appointment.”
David Owen, president of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies, also responded to the DOT survey.
In a lengthy document, Owen said the DOT could further examine split sleeper-berth regulations and the 14-hour driving window as ways to improve the flow of goods throughout the nation.
“We believe this would empower individual commercial drivers to respond to fatigue, detention at shippers’ facilities, drowsiness, road and weather circumstances, and other contingencies they face that typically vary each day in a more appropriate manner for individual situations,” Owen wrote.
“Gathering additional data on the proposed 6/4 and 5/5 splits would be invaluable for examining real-world effects of a broader array of split sleeper berth rest,” he continued. “We believe allowing truckers additional options for sleeper-berth time-splitting would contribute to improving the efficiency, safety and reliability of moving goods.”
Regardless of the mix of opinions, it would seem that almost everyone involved in supply chain industries agree that the problem won’t be fixed overnight. It could be well into next year before things begin flowing smoothly again.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and raised in East Texas, John Worthen returned to his home state to attend college in 1998 and decided to make his life in The Natural State. Worthen is a 20-year veteran of the journalism industry and has covered just about every topic there is. He has a passion for writing and telling stories. He has worked as a beat reporter and bureau chief for a statewide newspaper and as managing editor of a regional newspaper in Arkansas. Additionally, Worthen has been a prolific freelance journalist for two decades, and has been published in several travel magazines and on travel websites.