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Why Not Play It Safe?

By Clifford F. Lynch

DC Velocity, September 2007

After nearly two decades, discussion about the driver shortage has emerged as the supply chain world’s equivalent of the global warming debate.

"American truckers are expecting the amount of freight moving across U.S. highways to grow quickly in the next few years. Will they have the ability to carry it? Standing in their way are a number of issues, including a growing driver shortage…"

That might sound like a statement from this year’s edition of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals’ annual "State of Logistics Report." But it actually appeared in an article published in the trade magazine Purchasing back in 1989.

In the nearly two decades since that article was published, the public discussion about the driver shortage has emerged as the supply chain world’s equivalent of the global warming debate (Is it real? Is it hype? What – if anything – should we be doing about it?). And as with the global warming debate, public opinion – at least in the United States – seems to be divided fairly evenly among those who believe it to be a genuine threat, those who do not, and those who are just sick of hearing about it or feel they have little stake in the issue.

Among those who believe the driver shortage to be a very real threat is the American Trucking Associations (ATA). In 2005, 16 years after the Purchasing article appeared, a study commissioned by the group concluded that not only was the shortage real, but it was growing more acute by the year. At the time the study was published, the researchers put the shortage at 20,000 drivers. As most of the supply chain world knows by now, the study went on to warn that, assuming the economy grows as expected, the industry will be short 111,000 drivers by 2014.

The motor carriers also believe that a driver shortage exists – or at least most of them do. Some of them put a slightly different spin on it, however, arguing that there is not so much a shortage of "bodies" as a shortage of stable, reliable, and safety-conscious drivers. In any event, it’s clear that some carriers are going to great lengths to attract drivers who meet these criteria. Along with raising salaries, they’re offering everything from enhanced health benefits to access to comfortable, Internet-equipped lounges along the way.

Others deny that a driver shortage exists. On his website, The Trucker’s Report, veteran truck driver Kevin Watts flat out refutes the claim. "I believe there in NO such thing as a shortage of drivers," he writes, "but rather a shortage of common sense and good business practices [on the part of carriers], period." (His suggestion for carriers having trouble finding qualified drivers: offer higher wages.)

Watts is apparently not alone. Judging from their reaction to a proposed pilot program that would allow a limited number of Mexican truckers to operate on U.S. highways, it’s clear that many truck drivers see even a handful of Mexican operators as a threat to their livelihood.

Some shippers don’t believe it either. You don’t have to look far to find people who’ll tell you that the driver shortage was just an excuse for truckers to raise rates and curtail service two years ago.

Finally, there are those who are neither believers nor non-believers. They’re just sick and tired of hearing about the issue or don’t consider it to be their problem.

Granted, it’s easy to become blasé about an issue that we’ve lived with for so many years. But just in case the threat is genuine, maybe we should play it safe. Shippers and carriers have nothing to lose by continuing their efforts to increase driver productivity, as well as to make truck driving a more appealing profession.

Who knows? If we all do our part, maybe we won’t have to hear about it anymore.

 

 

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