Desperately Seeking New Truck Drivers

Aug. 1, 2000
ASSOCIATE Editor Mary Davis writes about the growing shortage of qualified tank truck drivers in a Modern Bulk Transporter special report that starts

ASSOCIATE Editor Mary Davis writes about the growing shortage of qualified tank truck drivers in a Modern Bulk Transporter special report that starts on page 22. It is a crisis that is only going to get worse.

At least 5,000 tractors were parked last year because tank truck fleets couldn't find enough drivers, according to industry estimates. A minimum of 80,000 new drivers will be needed over the next 10 years just to keep up with current levels of driver attrition in the tank truck industry.

The shortage will be even deeper if the hours-of-service changes proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration are adopted as written. Preliminary estimates suggest that the tank truck sector will need almost 10,000 new drivers to comply with the rules change, which would cut productivity by around 25%.

Why do we have a driver shortage? The reasons are myriad. Drivers are being chased from the industry by a multitude of factors-road rage, congested highways, too much time away from home, unrealistic delivery schedules, excessive delays at customer locations, and regulatory frustration, to name a few. In this time of low unemployment, they have plenty of options with fewer headaches.

For the tank truck industry, retirement is becoming one of the most serious factors in driver attrition. More and more of our best tank truck drivers are aging out of the industry. National Tank Truck Carriers estimates that the average driver age for member companies is around 50. That's not a good sign.

Replacing these people is a challenge under the best of circumstances. With unemployment hovering around a record low 4%, this is not the best of circumstances. Every industry is clamoring for more workers, and people are going with companies that offer the best working conditions and opportunities.

First and foremost, tank truck carriers must continue to improve driver working conditions if they are to avoid an industrywide capacity crisis. Tank truck drivers need to be viewed and treated as the skilled professionals that they are. Mentoring and career development programs are needed to enhance their professionalism.

Wages must reach a point where drivers are adequately compensated for the amount of skill and knowledge it takes to operate a tank rig in a safe, professional manner. Trip scheduling must become more flexible, and steps must be taken to eliminate lengthy delays at shipper and receiver locations. Customers with rigid, inflexible operations may find trucking service unavailable in the future.

These changes are not going to be enough, though. The trucking industry as a whole is scraping the bottom of the barrel for potential new drivers in the United States. The problem is more severe for the tank truck industry, because many fleets require three to five years of truck driving experience and a minimum age between 23 and 25.

New driver sources must be developed, and this means looking beyond the United States. Some dry freight fleets have tried to recruit truck drivers from the English-speaking islands in the Caribbean. In the past, attempts were made to bring truck drivers in from countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

The industry doesn't have to look halfway around the world. Good alternative sources of drivers are available close to home. Puerto Rico (a US commonwealth) and Mexico can be good sources. Cuba would be another source once the United States fully revokes the economic embargo, which long ago outlived its usefulness.

Certainly, any foreign drivers coming to work in the United States must be able to speak, read, and write English. They must have enough education to be able to understand the hazardous materials documentation. Fleets will have to provide more extensive training for these drivers, who will have to learn US operations from the ground up.

Those are not the biggest challenges, though. With the exception of Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens, foreign truck drivers and their US employers face a tough struggle with US immigration laws and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Still, a crack in the immigration wall may be developing. Republicans and Democrats in Congress want to boost the number of H-1B visas that are granted to skilled foreign workers. Bipartisan legislation has been written, and the White House has endorsed the proposal.

While the legislative action is aimed specifically at the high-tech sector, tank truck drivers should not be excluded from consideration. No matter where they are from, tank truck drivers are skilled professionals and should be classified as such.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.