ATA President & CEO Chris Spear Praises the Critical Contributions of Professional Drivers during 2020

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American Trucking Associations President & CEO Chris Spear joins PodWheels Network Executive Producer Greg Thompson to share some National Truck Driver Appreciation Week reflections on the critical contributions professional drivers have made to the nation during the unforgettable year of 2020. As you’ll hear Chris discuss, the way that professional drivers have met the challenges of these times has created a spotlight moment while enhancing the image of trucking as an essential industry.

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Announcer:

Coming up next on the PodWheels Network, you’ll hear the debut edition of our PodWheels News Express podcast series as we move into the fast lane with some of the leading newsmakers in the trucking industry. Here’s a preview featuring our National Truck Driver Appreciation Week conversation with Chris Spear, the President and CEO of the American Trucking Associations.

Chris Spear:

People across every community in America are stepping up, being vocal about those getting the job done – in this case, our drivers. Certainly, when you see just sign after sign thanking drivers for what they do, and I’ve driven all over America during this crisis. I got to tell you every time I see those signs, it just really makes me smile. I know it certainly has an impact on our drivers that are seeing them. The banners over the overpasses, the signs in the cornfields, it really is an impressive site. But then you pull into those communities and you’ve got people voluntarily out there handing out hot meals. You’ve got police escorting drivers to places so that they can get a shower, a hot meal. You’ve got kids handing out cookies, baked goods. Man, it doesn’t get any better than that. I mean, it’s just every fabric of American society at its best.

I’ll tell you, in a time where we’ve got such division, not just politically, but in our communities, in our cities, and you’re seeing that appreciation being thrown all across the country at our drivers. And that’s really, really an impressive moment. You got to take a step back and really appreciate what that means.

Announcer:

Welcome back to the PodWheels Network and welcome to the debut podcast in our PodWheels News Express Series. As you heard in the opening, our first guest for the PodWheels News Express is Chris Spear, the President and CEO of the American Trucking Associations. In leading the ATA, Chris heads up the largest and most comprehensive national trade association representing the trucking industry. PodWheels Network executive producer, Greg Thompson, spoke with Chris by phone on Wednesday, September 16th, right at the midpoint within National Truck Driver Appreciation Week for 2020. And as you’ll hear, driver appreciation was a central topic of the conversation Greg had with Chris.

In addition, they covered a number of other key points, including the increasing amount of positive recognition the trucking industry and professional drivers have received during a challenging year that has become one for the history books. Now let’s take you to our PodWheels News Express conversation with Chris Spear.

Greg Thompson:

Hello again, everybody. Greg Thompson back with you on the PodWheels Network as we continue to celebrate the 2020 edition of National Truck Driver Appreciation Week. And it’s my privilege right now to welcome Chris Spear back to PodWheels. As you guys heard in the opening, Chris is the President and CEO of the American Trucking Associations. Chris, thanks for joining us here on the PodWheels Network and happy National Truck Driver Appreciation Week 2020 to you and everyone at ATA.

Chris Spear:
Thanks for having me on, Greg. Happy to be here.
Greg Thompson:
Chris, 2020 has been an incredible year in so many ways. It’s had a ton of challenges, but one of the things that 2020 has done is that it has revealed very, very plainly to the entire nation the essential nature of the trucking industry. And if you would, I’d like for you to look back on 2020 thus far and discuss how trucking has answered the call for the nation and the need to fill the empty shelves.
Chris Spear:
Well, it has indeed and I think it’s appropriate that this podcast be held on NTDA week. It just really is an opportunity to, again, really reflect on all the contributions that our drivers provide our country, our industry, our economy. One week’s not enough. So, 2020, rightfully said, has really drawn a spotlight on the contributions of the industry, particularly the driver. I can dial back as far as April, when we put four drivers in their trucks on the south lawn of the White House. Again, an opportunity for the President of the United States and the Secretary of Transportation to thank our drivers, all 3.5 million of them and everything that they do. They don’t have the luxury of telecommuting. They’re behind the wheel. They’re going point A to point B. They’re delivering the test kits, the medical supplies to the front lines, to the EMTs, nurses and doctors.

And they’re filling the shelves. People around the country really quickly came to realize the important value that trucking and these drivers bring every day to their lives. They’re not doing anything different than they normally do. They’re just getting the attention they deserve. NTDA is a really good week to reflect on that. I’m quick in 2020 to really highlight that it doesn’t stop in a week. They’ve been doing it all year round when it matters most. I think we really need to reflect on that and really appreciate these are moms, they’re dads, they’re husbands, they’re wives, they’re real people behind these wheels getting the job done. They’re delivering when it matters most. Very proud to be in a position to represent them and to really draw attention to the contributions they make, because they truly are the ones getting us through this COVID crisis and recovery.
Greg Thompson:
Chris, when you look at it, and I’ve been around the industry for over 20 years now, being part of the industry, we always talk about the essentiality of trucking and the fact that the shelves would be empty. And this year the shelves were actually empty, particularly when you’re talking about sanitizing wipes and the essential needs out there. That was a very stark reality. And to have the industry, and drivers in particular, step up and fill that need, can you talk about the fact that truck drivers are first responders and that concept?
Chris Spear:
Absolutely. And they truly are. If they’re not first responders, they’re certainly supporting them. They are on the front lines of delivering the goods that need to get us through the crisis, not just food and water, but those test kits, those medical supplies, that really came to light in the first few months of the COVID crisis. Listen, this isn’t the first time that our elected officials have hit the panic button. People flock to the stores, they buy 180 rolls of toilet paper. I don’t know one person that needs 180 rolls, maybe 18, certainly not enough to last you through the rest of the year. But the fact is there’s plenty in the supply chain. We’ve got plenty to deliver. We’ll get those store shelves restocked. We’ll make certain that there’s plenty to go around. And I think it’s more important that our elected officials support the people that are making that happen, but also instill a sense of calm.

We are going to get through this. We’ve been in crisis before. Our industry is uniquely positioned, not only to support America through that crisis, but we’re not unaccustomed to radical changes that COVID’s caused. We’ve also, in addition to COVID, had a lot of strife with cities shutting down due to rioting. And, obviously, we want to protect everybody that we serve, but we want to protect our drivers, too. We don’t want them getting hurt in those environments. Added in the forest fires to the hurricanes and now we got a coming election.

2020 is just ripe with uncertainty and anxiety. And I think it’s trucking and our drivers that are really instilling a sense of calm out there. In the absence of our elected officials doing it, I’m glad to see our industry is. I think the recognition is right. I think we’ve risen to the occasion again, and will continue to get the job done and put us on a track toward normality. And I think we’re going to get there. This is temporary, may take about two or three more quarters until we really feel a sense of calm and normality again. Let’s not forget, it’s the truck driver and it’s this industry that’s getting it to happen in that way. So I’m very proud of that.
Greg Thompson:
Well, when you look at this week, National Truck Driver Appreciation Week, and you look at 2020 and all that we’ve just been talking about, does this week take on special meaning just because of how the industry has responded, how drivers have responded on those front lines? Are you looking at this week a little more in a special light that may be in years past?
Chris Spear:
Well, yeah, I think when we look broadly at 2020, it’s not been one crisis. It’s been several and it’s a compounding effect that really adds a tremendous amount of pressure, not just on trucking and our drivers, but on the economy, on the consumer, the mindset, the anxiety that goes into situations like this, there’s only so much you can take. I’ve got people that work at ATA that are single parents. They have two kids in school, public school, and they’re going online. That puts added pressure as now the parent becomes not only the professional breadwinner, but also the teacher. They’ve got to be there by their side to make sure they’re doing their work. There’s just so much opportunity for kids nowadays to drift and doing school online, I can tell you I’ve got four, two at home. It’s a full-time job for my wife, myself, to make certain that they stay on track to support these teachers. They’re really going above and beyond to develop a curriculum that they’ve never had to deal with before.

ATA, same thing. We’ve had to go virtual in literally every event that we’ve held this year. That requires designing new agendas, new platforms, new sales packages for sponsors and new ways to bring keynote speakers to the table to really highlight our issues. We’ve had to totally re-engineer how we do things. Throw in storms and forest fires, you throw in riots, you throw in elections. Man, I’ll tell you there’s just no shortage of it. There’s only so much I think America can take before you start to see some elements of society begin to crack. That’s when I think people really flock to certainty. Our industry is getting the recognition it deserves, not because we’re doing anything out of the ordinary, we’re just doing our job. But we’re doing it at a time where it really brings a lot of calm and certainty to consumers, to society, to the economy at a time when I think we need it most. So, rising to the occasion and really meeting those challenges, very few do that in this country.

I wish our elected officials did more of it, but in that void, it’s really, really pleasing to see the trucking industry, our drivers, our workforce… One in 16 jobs in the U.S. is trucking. The top job in 29 states is a driver. We move 71 percent of the economy, and we’re darn proud of it. So, to be there when it matters most, that’s what we’re about. And it feels really good in all this uncertainty that we’re getting the recognition, particularly our drivers, getting the recognition that they deserve.
Greg Thompson:
Well, Chris, when you talk about some of the challenges that you’ve mentioned that ATA has faced as an organization, that the industry has faced, this week – when I think about it in the celebration of the men and women out there who are moving America’s economy ¬– does this also give you and everyone at ATA and everyone associated with the trucking industry, a chance just to take a little bit of a breath and celebrate what this industry is all about?
Chris Spear:
Absolutely. And again, I don’t think one week is enough, but this is a week to reflect. It’s a week to recognize, really draw some strong conclusions about who is really getting the job done in America. And our industry is certainly at the top of the list. I just can’t tell you how proud it makes me, the ATA team, our members to see our drivers get that recognition. Listen, they’re gone away from their families. They’ve got kids. Their spouses are at home taking care of the kids. They’re probably online just making certain that everything runs on time. And then they’re out there in the COVID environment putting themselves, their health, at risk to get the job done. And it’s not because they have to, it’s because they want to. This is the career path many chose, and they’re doggone proud of it.

I’ll tell you, it really, really brings to the surface who we are as an industry when our drivers are out there really making certain that they are performing at their peak level and that their families are at home supporting them 100 percent. That our industry, our association, are behind them 100 percent. That’s what NTDAW is about, really recognizing those contributions day in and day out of the driver. This is just something that we can’t dismiss. And I hope all of America is really paying tribute to them because they’ve earned it.
Greg Thompson:
You’ve mentioned it many times in the last few minutes. National Truck Driver Appreciation Week is something that needs to go on every week, every day. And you see this happen with a lot of fleets, a lot of carriers and a lot of folks in the industry. I know as you’ve talked about it here, that this is the belief that ATA has. I know that the ATA puts its beliefs into action. So, as the nation’s most comprehensive trade association for the trucking industry, can you talk about some of the ongoing efforts and initiatives that ATA is leading as the organization works to make each day better for the lives of professional drivers, the folks behind the wheel?
Chris Spear:
Absolutely. And let’s start with their image. I mean, it’s not just NTDAW. It’s not just one week. It’s every week and every opportunity, Greg, to really draw attention to those contributions. Dial back to April of 2020. When the President of the United States, Secretary of Transportation allowed us to put four drivers representing the 3.5 million out there, their trucks on the south lawn of the White House. That one event garnered in 48 hours, 410 million, million social media impressions. You can’t buy that kind of exposure. So, when you get opportunities like that, you jump on them because I’ll tell you what, not only did those drivers earn it, they deserved it. They deserved that recognition and it wasn’t political. It was all about them.
The reaction we got in the media was outstanding. You saw communities rise, putting thank you signs on overpasses, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts baking cookies. You had churches hand delivering meals to drivers. I have not witnessed that kind of recognition ever. And in a time of 2020, a time of crisis, when it matters most to see that image just climb to peak levels really is rewarding, much deserved and earned by our drivers. That’s on the image side.

On the issue side, we still got a job to do. When everything shut down back in March and April, we had governors, mostly mayors, who have never dealt with trucking before make decisions that maybe would have been in the best interest of their constituents. But because they haven’t worked with trucking or transportation logistics, they carved us out. We had cities literally drawing perimeters and shutting down. Well, how do you get food and water? How do you get medical supplies and test kits to the front lines? That all comes off a truck. Well, they never stopped to think about that. So, we had to give them a moment of pause. We had to get engaged, get loud. We immediately got DHS, the Federal Department of Homeland Security essential status for our industry, allowing us to operate in all 50 states without impediments. We got rest stops that were closed by multiple states reopened. We got DMV flexibility for states that closed DMVs, flexibility on CDL, CLP medical certificates.

We certainly focused on hours of service flexibility on the federal level. All these things we had to do in a matter of days in order to keep our companies, our drivers, our industry moving and delivering A to B without those impediments. Those issues mattered most and that’s what your associations are engineered to do. Not just ATA, but the state associations, working hand in glove.

On the issues side of it, we continue to pound marble on infrastructure, tax reforms, like a holiday for FET. That adds $20,000 per power unit. Getting safer, newer, more environmentally friendly equipment out on the road that’s good not only for our industry and the motoring public, but it’s good for the environment. And it’s also good for jobs, the people that make that equipment. So, good all-around on that. We’ve worked really hard on regulatory reforms, permanent hours of service flexibility. These are all things that really come to the surface during a time of crisis. You’ve really got to be able to focus on the issues and not get drawn up in all the anxiety and rhetoric. And I think we’ve done an excellent job of proving our value during 2020. All those things combined – image to issues and action – that really defines who we are and why we’re special, and it’s why I think our drivers particularly are getting the recognition they deserve.
Greg Thompson:
So, you’re standing there on the White House lawn and there are trucks and there are drivers there and your industry is being highlighted. How did that make you at everyone at ATA feel in that moment?
Chris Spear:
Well, I think we all have our Mount Everest to climb. This is for me personally, professionally, it is truly rewarding when you were able to have your industry highlighted for its contributions, in this case, our professional truck drivers, by the leader of the free world. Whether people agree or disagree with President Trump, the office is bigger than the occupant. Anytime you have the opportunity to be present on the White House lawn like that and be recognized not only nationally, but globally, the attention that it draws to who we are as an industry and what our drivers are about, it’s unparalleled. There is nothing that can match that. There’s no prosthetic that can take place of that. And, as a leader of an industry association as historic as the 87-year-old ATA, I’ll tell you that brings a lot of pride to me personally and professionally to see that unfold.
Yeah, doggone right. I’m really proud of it and proud of the people that made that happen. There are millions of them that did. It was an honor to always be invited and to attend, but I’m not the one that’s getting the recognition. The recognition was channeled directly at those four drivers on behalf of the 3.5 million professional truck drivers out there across America. We had fleet drivers and we had owner-operators represented. We had a nice diverse mix of gender and race. And I got to tell you that really is special because that represents the cross section of who we are. We’re all walks of life, whether race, gender. We’re the ones that represent the fabric of America. We’re the ones that are getting the job done. And those four drivers really captured that. It really was an honor to be in the cheap seats there and watching that, really a special moment. That day, they got their recognition. This week, they’re getting the recognition. Just keep at it. That’s what we’re about.
Greg Thompson:
Well, and Chris, you mentioned it a moment ago, you talked about the social media impressions that that event created. And when I looked at your video for driver appreciation and you saw, for instance, the little boy who was making sandwiches for drivers, do you feel like that event might’ve inspired folks, as you said, get that message out, the impressions that it made – to show, again, the essential reality of trucking, of drivers and that value the conversation that you guys have continued on to inspire people to do those small things for the men and women out there. Do you feel like maybe that helped? And to see that response from people across the country has to be pretty rewarding for you and the associations.
Chris Spear:
It is the outcome that you always hope to see is that people across every community in America are stepping up, being vocal about those getting the job done – in this case, our drivers certainly when you see just sign after sign, thanking drivers for what they do. I’ve driven all over America during this crisis and I got to tell you, every time I see those signs, it just really makes me smile. I know it certainly has an impact on our drivers that are seeing them, the banners over the overpasses, the signs in the cornfields. It really is an impressive sight, but then you pull into those communities and you’ve got people voluntarily out there handing out hot meals. You’ve got police escorting drivers to places so that they can get a shower, a hot meal. You’ve got kids, like you just described, handing out cookies, baked goods. Man, it doesn’t get any better than that. I mean, it’s just every fabric of American society at its best.

I’ll tell you, in a time where we’ve got such division, not just politically, but in our communities, in our cities and you’re seeing that appreciation being thrown all across the country at our drivers. Man, that’s really, really an impressive moment. You got to take a step back and really appreciate what that means. We just got to ride the crest of this wave longer and continue to shine and show what we’re about. I think this is the best of the worst year we’ve seen. I’m happy about that because there’s plenty to be negative about. This is certainly a positive.
Greg Thompson:
Well, as you bring that up, that’s a perfect point to transition into the future of trucking and from hearing what you’re talking about and when you think about what’s happened in this year, and again, focusing on the positives, the future of trucking looks pretty bright.
Chris Spear:
It does. I’m seeing a tremendous amount of indicators that our contributors to trucking are going in the right direction. Housing construction is up. Retail is up. Manufacturing is our third bucket, not as strong as the other two, but it’s showing a lot of promise. Those are all factors economically that feed into our industry and make it grow. So, when you see all three buckets of freight really going in the right direction, that is very encouraging. Where we see it slow is in services. And services don’t directly impact trucking as much as the other three. So, with that said, we’ve got, nationally, some work to do and bringing the remainder of the economy back online. That’s probably going to happen around Q3, Q4 of next year.

When I said about a return to normality, that’s kind of the ballpark or when we see it and predict it will reflect a little bit. And that’s probably going to be driven a lot by the availability and distribution of the vaccine. Once that’s in place, I think COVID becomes a distant memory and we get back to work as a national economy. We look forward to that day, but, until then, we’ve got a job to do and making certain that we keep all the pieces and parts together as an industry. That’s what trucking is there for. I am very optimistic we’ll pull through this.
Greg Thompson:
And when we talk about the future, one of the things ATA has been working on for many years is the generational shift that is going to need to happen in this industry. As you know, baby boomers continue to age and retire. One of the things that’s happened this year has been the pilot program that FMCSA has introduced. And I wanted to get your thoughts on that, about where things are with that and looking at the future of driver opportunities.
Chris Spear:
Absolutely great points to make and I’d welcome the opportunity to address. There are few things certain in an environment like this. Age is definitely one of them. We’re all going to get older. We’re all going to retire. We’re all going to leave the industry that we love. And that is a fact. If you’re going to replace it and grow it, you better be bringing in new talent and it’s not going to come from one, but several channels. You’re going to need to retain the current workforce through wellness programs, healthcare benefits, better pay. You got to keep them in the saddle longer than what they normally would be if you ignored all those factors. So, taking care of our own, right now, that’s priority number one.
Second, you’ve got to deal with exiting service men and women, people that are leaving the military services and all those that have served and are in veteran status. We need to bring more of those people in. We certainly prioritize that. Urban hiring, we need to put more emphasis on bringing people into the industry that don’t know who we are and what we’re about. African Americans, Hispanics, more women, we really need to focus on that and that talent pool exists in urban environments. They may not have the exposure to trucking. We got to bring them into the industry and give them a home, give them a place to grow and earn a good wage and benefits long term. I think that talent pool is really right for the picking.

And then I think our youth. 49 states, Greg, 49 states allow an 18- to 20-year-old to drive a Class 8. So, I can go from northern California all the way down to San Diego at age 18. But if I try to cross from Texarkana, Texas into Texarkana, Arkansas, it’s illegal. It makes absolutely no sense. More importantly, those 49 states have no training standards, no technology attached to the equipment for that block of talent to really learn how to safely and responsibly operate that Class 8. What we’ve advocated hard for is training, supervision and technology. And we’re delivering that. We have bipartisan support, heavily bipartisan support, in the House and Senate on this issue – allowing that block of talent to be properly trained, supervised, and have technology on the equipment so that they can do it safely and be part of our industry at a much earlier age. We’re losing that block to other trades and that’s unacceptable.

Greg, if we can send 18- to 20-year-olds overseas to defend our freedom, train them to do that, I’m pretty sure we can train them to cross state lines in a Class 8. This is just an absolute no-brainer. It has to be done safely and responsibly. It has to be built solely on training. And I think we’ve done that here. So, the pilot at FMCSA is outstanding. That’s a step in the right direction. We applaud it because all these things combined are really going to shore up the shortage long term. It’s going to bring new talent. It’s going to put an emphasis on training and safety. And I think we’re going to be a better industry as a result.
Greg Thompson:
Chris, we’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to speak with you and look at what’s happening with the trucking industry, particularly what’s happening on the driver level and again, celebrating National Truck Driver Appreciation Week. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with us before we go?
Chris Spear:
I think putting ourselves in a position to win matters. ATA has been, as I said, around for 87 years. I’m the ninth guy to come in and lead it. I want to set some precedents. I want to put ourselves in a position to win. And to do that, we have to operate differently. We have to understand the environment we’re in, that it’s tough, that it’s politically polluted, very divided, but that’s no excuse. People are out there getting the job done every day, as we talked about extensively, our drivers, most notably. We have step up and find ways to win, too. Create that growth environment that deals with the shortage, deals with good tax policy, puts good infrastructure in place, takes the plaintiff’s bar to its knees and creates a less litigious environment for our industry to grow. All of these things collectively are issues, many of them are priorities to ATA. And we have a responsibility to our members, our drivers, our industry, and the American people, the consumers particularly, to do these things that are common sense.

I’m just convinced that the more we do that, the better we’ll be for our future. We’re going to put some wins on the board. Making certain that we are in a good position to win is key. No matter who wins the White House, no matter who wins the House and Senate post-COVID, we’ve got to look beyond the hood – five, 10, 15 years out and make certain that we are in a position to put wins on the board. And that’s the legacy that I envision and it’s built on the backs of our industry, our drivers. That gives me tremendous confidence that we’ll be successful.

Announcer:
That’s Chris Spear, the President and CEO of the American Trucking Associations. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Chris for his time and perspective while joining us for this debut edition of the PodWheels Network News Express podcast. Everyone at the PodWheels Network would also like to take this opportunity to thank the communications team at ATA for making our interview with Chris happen. We’re looking forward to bringing you more of the trucking industries newsmakers through the PodWheels Network News Express podcast in the near future.

Before we go, we wanted to share one final thought about driver appreciation. At the PodWheels Network, we believe that driver appreciation is part of every week of the year. We believe driver appreciation is part of every day of the year. We’d like to invite you to stay up to date on the latest from the PodWheels Network by downloading the PodWheels App. It’s available in the Apple store and on Google Play. Just search PodWheels in either store and download the app. Once again, everyone at the PodWheels Network would like to thank the nation’s professional drivers for your commitment to service and your dedication to safety. And as you travel across the nation’s roads and highways, may you find continued good health and safe travels with every mile you drive.

For over 30 years, the objective of The Trucker editorial team has been to produce content focused on truck drivers that is relevant, objective and engaging. After reading this article, feel free to leave a comment about this article or the topics covered in this article for the author or the other readers to enjoy. Let them know what you think! We always enjoy hearing from our readers.

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