ISLE OF PALMS, SC. — Even as it faces considerable challenges that may take years to address, the trucking industry sees some positive signals as the country emerges from the global pandemic that could help the industry evolve in the future. 

John Dillman, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Foodliner Inc., spoke to millers April 11 during a general session at the North American Millers’ Association’s 2022 Spring Conference at Wild Dunes Resort in Isle of Palms, SC.

Mr. Dillman said the supply chain struggles seen over the past two years increased the market awareness of the national driver shortage, even at the consumer level. 

“Anyone who is shipping anything in a truck and paying for it has been told about the driver shortage until they’re sick and tired of hearing about it, but it’s still here,” he said. “What we found particularly interesting was that even the people pushing the shopping carts down the aisles and the people trying to make those grocery purchases online trying to figure out ‘why can’t I get any vanilla syrup for my lattes?’ or ‘why aren’t the products on the shelf today?’ know there’s an issue with trucks. Certainly, that awareness has been boosted to a new level.”

Within the triangle of shipper, carrier and customer, the pandemic years have increased cooperation to work toward solutions.

“There’s no quick or overnight fix but they’re asking what are the things we can do out there and bridge that gap together?” Mr. Dillman said. 

In the same timeframe, dedicated assets have become a much hotter topic, and a small number of locations have gone that route, he said. Another technique, drop-and-hook agreements, have become more common, he said. In that scenario, trailers are left with a customer after being delivered when a driver is available and within their hours-of-service limits. 

“As long as that coordination works, it creates some gap and some relief in the capacity issues in the market,” Mr. Dillman said. 

Finally, Mr. Dillman said there has been increased transparency of the true cost when shippers have repeated delays or cancellations amid such tight capacity. 

“What does that actually cost us when a customer finds it’s easier to order heavy and then cancel back because if they try to add a late load on, it’s not going to get there because of what’s going on in the marketplace,” he said.

As for solutions, it all boils down to “topload, payload, time of day. That’s it,” Mr. Dillman told the millers. “With all that’s going on and all the issues around trying to get deliveries and trying to get carriers to haul, we can get more loads on per tank wash, we can get more on the unit to maximize the payload, and then time of day, how flexible can customers be. How many can we get hauled that are not happening between 6 and 10 a.m. when 85% of customers want their deliveries.”

The outlook for the trucking industry is for higher driver wages. Already, Walmart announced a second increase in driver wages in as many years, most recently to a $95,000 to $110,000 per annum range. Companies are looking at equipment changes to increase the pool of potential drivers, such as all automatic transmissions. Apprenticeship programs and attention to giving drivers under age 21 a path toward becoming an over-the-road trucker both are increasing areas of focus for the industry. 

The latest US government estimate projected a driver shortage of 80,000 today would increase to 250,000 over the next 10 years.