The trucking industry was already struggling to keep drivers. COVID economy has made matters worse

SUMMIT, SD – Eric Norquist and his wife, Krista, don’t always take turns sleeping in their truck’s cab on the road, but as an unusually warm weather system has closed in on Minnesota and the Dakotas earlier This month, they took turns driving in hopes of avoiding potentially dangerous conditions.

“It’s definitely not something you want to drive a tractor-trailer in, that’s for sure,” Eric Norquist said on a helmet as he and his wife cruised Interstate 29 in South Dakota in carrying a load of French fries from Grand Forks, North Dakota. , Oklahoma. “Even without totally knocking you over, it can get you off the road.”

Help Wanted series logo

Norquists have an ideal arrangement: They haul loads from the north to states such as Texas and Mississippi and can often return home to north-central Minnesota by the weekend. The couple married in 2008 and started driving the same truck two years ago after Krista got her commercial driver’s license.

Newsletter subscription for email alerts

In a segment of an industry that has suffered from high turnover and a labor shortage due to a pandemic, Norquists are in a position that many frustrated freight business owners would like. maybe it’s more common. Long-haul trucking often takes weeks or maybe even months on the road, which drivers, business owners and economists who follow the industry agree that many people are stepping away from the road. job.

“If there were 50,000 couples like us scattered across the country, the driver problem would have gone,” said Eric Norquist. “It’s just not that everyone is treated with this hand.”

Eric Norquist and his wife, Krista, are an owner-operator couple who work together as long-haul truckers.  Eric Norquist / Photo submitted

Eric Norquist and his wife, Krista, are an owner-operator couple who work together as long-haul truckers. Eric Norquist / Photo submitted

Shortage or turnover?

Growing demand for shipping during the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded problems for the industry by fueling a shortage of drivers. Trucking industry groups in the United States have complained about a driver shortage for years, but it is a hotly debated topic. Many economists question the existence of a shortage before the pandemic, instead citing high turnover rates due to poor working conditions and pay in long-haul trucking.

Stephen Burks, professor of economics and management at the University of Minnesota Morris who drove tractor-trailers in the 1970s, says the problems started when the United States deregulated the trucking industry in the early 1970s. 1980. This decision reduced shipping costs by promoting more competition between companies, but ultimately led to the decline of unions and lower wages for drivers. In 1980, the average truck driver made about $ 100,000 in today’s dollars, Burks said. In 2021, it’s closer to $ 50,000.

Sales plagued the industry for decades. Between 1995 and 2017, large aircraft achieved an annual turnover of 94%, according to industry figures cited by Burks. Even as the country reeled from the financial crisis of the late 2000s, companies struggled to keep their workers.

Stephen burks

Stephen burks

“You couldn’t buy a job in the United States in 2010 and in long haul trucks the annualized turnover rate was 39%,” Burks said in an interview. “Having said that, it is the economic conditions in this part of the industry that are creating the situation that managers perceive as a shortage.”

The American Trucking Associations, a group that represents trucking companies across the country, warned this fall that a shortage of 80,000 drivers could add to the nation’s supply chain problems. The association warned that the shortage could reach 160,000 by 2030.

Burks disputes the ATA’s estimate, but said there was indeed a shortage of long-haul truck drivers due to a pandemic at the end of 2021. Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he estimates that the industry needs around 15,000 additional long-haul drivers to meet demand. – something he says will undoubtedly cause business headaches.

“Historically, there is no shortage of truckers,” he said. “There has been a relatively tight job market, but the noise, industry claims that there is a shortage reflect the point of view of managers in one sub-part of the business: long-haul trucks. , who have had this historically high turnover for a long time. “

“There’s actually kind of a shortage now, a real shortage, in the short term,” Burks said. “Why is there a shortage? Because there has been a huge increase in demand due to all the stimulus … and the rebound from the COVID shutdown. “

For now, that means higher freight rates for many long-haul drivers. Paul Mueller, president and owner of P&B Transportation, based in Bismarck, North Dakota, says his drivers have the best freight rates in 20 years.

Norquist, who started driving trucks in 2007, said the kilometer rates were some of the best he’s ever seen, and it’s been months since he’s turned down a job due to a low offer . When he first started, he often saw fares as low as $ 1.65 per mile. Once considered a good fare, $ 3 per mile has become very common over the past year, and many loads pay over $ 4, Norquist said.

“Right now, in the short term, it’s the best money we’ve ever made,” he said, adding that inflation had eaten away at his earnings. “But then I turn around and pay it at the diesel pump and the grocery store.”

Far from home

Eric and Krista Norquist's semi-trailer.  Eric Norquist / Photo submitted

Eric and Krista Norquist’s semi-trailer. Eric Norquist / Photo submitted

Mueller, whose company owns 65 trucks, says his No.1 problem is finding drivers. The turnover is high for his company, around 25-30% of drivers quit after a year. Half of its drivers leave after five years. It has a lot to do with the distance.

“They don’t want to work seven to ten days early,” he said, explaining that many drivers want to be home by the end of the work week. “Well, if you go to Chicago, it’s hard to come home on Friday night. “

Minnesota Trucking Association president John Hausladen said many companies are trying to make adjustments to attract more drivers.

“The fleets have adjusted the routes and the length of the trips to meet the needs of the modern truck driver,” he said in an email. “Today’s truckers can choose from a variety of local, regional and highway options. Today’s trucks are the safest and most comfortable they’ve ever been. “

Despite these efforts, it seems that more and more drivers are deciding to stay closer to home. Burks said Jason Miller, associate professor of logistics at Michigan State University, recognized a “large COVID-19 reallocation” in employment in trucking.

In a trend in part due to the increase in last mile deliveries for e-commerce, local general fear employment increased by 28,000 employees between October 2018 and 2021 – 10% nationally, Miller found. . Meanwhile, long-haul trucking less than full trucks fell by 14,600.

“It’s easier to find heavy truck drivers who will work locally and near the area because they come home more often,” Burks said.

“You might still be working 60 hours a week, but at least Saturday lunchtime they’re home and they don’t leave until Monday morning or Saturday night late.”

This relative consistency is something that even long-haul Norquists seek and are able to achieve as a driving team. They don’t like being stuck away from home in Backus, Minnesota for long periods of time.

“We choose our schedule, but we don’t like being away for too long,” said Eric Norquist. “Some guys stay out for months, and if you like to do that, that’s fine, but it’s not a lifetime.”

Norquist says that while the industry can be tough at times, he plans to continue trucking until he retires. Even then, the Park Rapids Minnesota native says he will continue to do so as a hobby – perhaps driving sugar beet trucks for farmers in the fall.

What about the nation’s logistical puzzle? He sees it getting worse.

“As an average Joe Watcher – you’ve got an increase in population, you’ve got a consumer society – and now a disposable consumer goods company that just consumes a lot of things, whether it’s phones, food, gadgets. Norquist said. “Don’t you think a truck driver shortage is inevitable?

Comments are closed.