WHEN considering the top 10 issues facing the tank truck industry, Lee Miller said truck drivers and driver concerns should be ranked one through five. The growing shortage of technicians and mechanics is another critical concern.
Miller, the 2017/2018 chairman of National Tank Truck Carriers Inc, offered his views on the driver shortage from the tank truck perspective in a recent Op-Ed piece in Transport Topics. He says the bottom line is that “you can’t haul freight without professional drivers,” and capacity is getting tighter.
Miller pointed out in the Op-Ed that more carriers are offering pay raises and other financial incentives to attract and retain drivers. In addition, fleets are trying to create a more attractive work environment with new fleet equipment, advanced technology, better safety support, greater work flexibility, and more respect and appreciation. That’s just a part of the solution, though.
He touts a variety of initiatives to attract more drivers. These include graduated commercial driver license CDL programs for younger drivers, more apprenticeship programs, and greater efforts to attract women and minorities.
Having grown up in the tank truck industry, Miller saw the driver issue develop over several decades. Miller Transporters Inc, based in Jackson, Mississippi, has been in business almost 80 years and was founded by his grandfather.
“Growing up I lived in Jackson and knew of the company,” Miller says. “I was fortunate to be part of a large family that owned a business.”
His grandfather, Hal Miller Sr, went to work for Shell Oil Company after graduating from college in 1921. For a number of years, he was moving back and forth between Caracas, Venezuela, and the San Francisco Bay Area. He had three sons with his first wife, and Lee’s father (Dick) was oldest, followed by Jaime and Jerry. On one of the ocean voyages, Hal Sr’s first wife contracted an illness and later died while the children were very young.
At some point Hal Miller Sr was transferred to New Orleans, Louisiana, and remarried. They had three more boys—Hal Jr, Scott, and Dennis. The second wife died and he married for a third time. By then, they were all living in Jackson, all of them under one roof.
Lee’s grandfather started the tank truck operation in Jackson in 1942. At the time, he was running a Shell bulk plant that received fuel deliveries by rail tankcar. As WWII heated up, railcars were diverted to government use. Hal Sr had to begin transporting fuel shipments from refineries and river barges to the bulk plant.
Family lore says he found a WWI-era tank truck with maybe a 400-gallon capacity in a field near Jackson. Product was being barged to Vicksburg, Mississippi, so he used the tank truck to haul fuel from there to the Jackson bulk plant. That kept him in business.
Down the street was a Standard Oil bulk plant, so he started hauling for them as well. Little by little, the tank truck operation grew into what eventually became Miller Transporters.
“By then my grandfather had tired of moving around, and he wanted to stay in one place,” Lee says. “He stopped running the Shell bulk plant, and, with a partner, started building the trucking operation.”
Lee began working at the company during high school. He started in maintenance shop and then moved into dispatch during summers and Christmas break. “I liked it because this is a people business,” he says. “I felt like we had an exceptional group of employees, and I enjoyed working with them. In addition, at the end of the day, you could sit back and see that you had accomplished something.”
Lee worked at a terminal in Brandon, Mississippi, where Miller Transporters hauled cement, during college. After earning a degree in transportation at Mississippi State University, Lee went to work in the Birmingham, Alabama terminal. He spent two years there as a dispatcher.
“That was in 1979 during the oil embargo and the independent trucker strike,” he says. “That’s when the fuel surcharge was initiated.”
He moved from there to Mobile, Alabama, for a year as assistant terminal manager, followed by two-and-a-half years as terminal manager in El Dorado, Arkansas. He moved back to Jackson in late 1984 and has been here ever since.
“I held various roles at headquarters terminal,” Lee says. “I helped in billing department and payables. I worked in IT, quality, and Responsible Care. I’ve done just about everything here except maintenance.
Over the years, Lee saw Miller Transporters go through plenty of changes. “Used to run roughly 600 trucks and had 11 terminals just in Mississippi,” he says. “Today, we have more terminals in Illinois than in Mississippi. We used to be shorthaul with gasoline, cement, and such. Now, we are a chemical hauler.
“With deregulation in 1980, we found opportunities to go elsewhere. Early expansion was into Beaumont, Texas, and Savannah, Georgia. During the years after, business conditions dictated the closure of some of the Mississippi terminals, with the exception of Jackson.
“The business mix has changed, and we have diversified into tank container depots as well as other activities.”
Lee says he was always aware of NTTC. “My grandfather was involved almost from the time the organization was founded. He ran the company until around 1964, and then sold the company to his sons. Jaime ran it for a number of years until he had a heart attack. Scott took up the president’s role until 2007, when I replaced him.
“It’s interesting to see that family companies still make up a large percentage of the tank truck industry. The family culture is still very evident at NTTC events.”
Asked if he ever thought of working in a different industry, Lee says: I never did. I was drawn to this business, and I felt like it was something I wanted to do all along. My dad was never someone to bring the office home, so there wasn’t a lot of talk about day-to-day operations. But when I was around my uncles and grand dad, I’d hear a lot about the business. It sounded so intriguing, and it drew me to the industry.”
While Lee grew up in the industry, he’s only been attending NTTC meetings for about 11 years. “Scott kind of handed the NTTC participation to me when I was named president of Miller Transporters,” he says.
BT: What did the past year mean for you in terms of being chairman of National Tank Truck Carriers?
Miller: It was a very high honor. I was the second of my family to be selected as NTTC chairman. Scott Miller, my uncle, preceded me. To follow in Scott’s footsteps to lead the association that is the advocate for the tank truck industry is the highest honor.
To NTTC’s credit, they arranged for Scott to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the same time I took office as chairman at the 2017 annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois. It was just spectacular. I’m so glad we were together for that meeting.
My job as chairman early on was to not do anything to mess it up. That is still my job. We have such a competent staff. The management side of the association has strategically shifted in recent years. Government relations and legislative activities have become much more complex, and that has required additional staff and expertise. NTTC has brought that expertise onboard in the form of Boyd Stephenson, Brittan Clark, Ryan Streblow, and Dan Furth. That has made National Tank the expert source for hazmat transportation.
We believe membership in NTTC gives a tank truck carrier a competitive advantage. NTTC does three key things for its members: Advocacy, education, and networking.
BT: What were the top 10 issues in 2017 for the tank truck industry?
Miller: Topping the list is the driver shortage. Then comes the challenge of attracting more potential drivers to the industry. Number three is driver retention.
There must be ways in which we can attract people to the industry and keep them in trucking. There is an age disconnect when someone who is not college bound leaves high school and when he can drive a truck hauling hazmat. We need to address that gap in some way, whether it is by legislation, mentors, or apprenticeships.
Are there loads those guys can haul? I believe we can find a way for those individuals to haul hazmat loads in intrastate operations. Eighteen-year-old truck drivers can already haul some kinds of cargo. Anything we can do to open truck driving to a broader part of the population will have a trickle-down effect.
When it comes to attracting and retaining drivers, there is no single answer. It’s not just higher pay. Drivers are thinking about lifestyle issues. They are due respect.
BT: Would we ever move the position of truck driver out of the category of being an unskilled job?
Miller: It should be seen as skilled labor, and perhaps this industry should look at reclassifying tank truck drivers. A tank truck driver must pass background checks and go through a wide range of training and certifications for hazardous materials and other factors.
Skills reclassification would automatically raise their profile and their pay. We used to have a waiting list of people wanting to be truck drivers, but those days are long gone.
BT: What are some of the keys to driver retention?
Miller: Your company needs to be a good fit culturally for each driver. Try to tailor what they are going to be hauling to what they want to do. The work needs to fit their lifestyle.
In many cases lifestyle relates to home time, but it’s not that exclusively. Predictability follows close behind. I think a driver is willing to go from here to California, for example, as long as he knows what he’s doing next. Out and back, that’s predictability.
BT: How much of the business today is dedicated hauls with that sort of predictability?
Miller: It’s increasing. We’ve tried to go to a seven- or eight-day dispatch—for instance from Baton Rouge to Chicago, Chicago to Kingsport, Highpoint to Laurel. The driver can plan for other aspects of his life. He’ll be back in time for an important family event a week from tomorrow.
Autonomous vehicles also should be on the top 10 list. We need a better sense of where that technology is going. I feel like it is coming to trucking, although it may never fit with hazmat transportation.
BT: Can autonomous trucks play a role in addressing the driver supply issue?
Miller: They definitely will be a factor in the future. The industry needs to understand autonomous truck technology and needs to develop a position on it. We’re not talking driverless trucks. You will have an operator in the cab.
When it comes to this technology, what about those drones they fly around Iran and Iraq. Don’t they have operators in the United States or other locations that are controlling the drones? If we can do a drone strike in the Middle East, why can’t we remotely drive a truck across the country?
If technology can handle cross-country runs, we can free up drivers for operations where a human presence is needed. It could help ease the driver shortage.
BT: Would the public ever become comfortable with autonomous vehicles being used for hazmat?
Miller: I can’t imagine they ever would. I don’t think I would ever be comfortable with it.
BT: What would be next on your list?
Miller: Infrastructure would be number five. As far as I know, we’re the only industry that is saying “raise our taxes, raise our fuel taxes.” Elected officials aren’t willing to touch it.
BT: What are the key issues or concerns with infrastructure?
Miller: Congestion is the key concern. The severity of traffic bottlenecks is growing steadily across the country. For instance, Atlanta has two of the top 10 bottlenecks, according to one recent industry report. Drivers burn up their hours sitting in traffic.
Increased intermodal transport could help. Rail movements of container freight can bypass highway traffic chokepoints in the most congested urban areas. Some organizations are building container transfer facilities beyond the congested areas. At some point, trucks and railroads need to work together more closely.
BT: Do we need more road and highway capacity?
Miller: First of all, we need to take care of what we’ve already got. Beyond that, we need more highway capacity. The highway user fee needs to be increased, but there is little or no appetite for that in the government.
BT: Are toll roads a valid option?
Miller: Toll roads can be paid off, and some have been. I could support that, possibly.
BT: What ranks as number six for your top 10?
Miller: That would be regulations/mandates from the federal government. President Trump’s efforts to freeze regulations have become part of the conversation.
BT: What is occurring on the regulatory front currently?
Miller: The latest federal regulation to come into play is one that we happen to agree with, and that is electronic driver logs. When a regulation can improve safety, it deserves consideration.
With the ELD mandate, there is some loss of productivity, and it has taken away some discretion in the logging process. The ELD regulation clearly is a step in the right direction. Among other benefits, it reduces the likelihood of someone running false logs.
BT: What comes next in the top 10?
Miller: NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) is a big number seven. There is an incredible amount of trade that goes back and forth. It would be a mistake to get out of NAFTA. All three trading partners benefit.
Number eight would be the growing shortage of technicians and mechanics.
Number nine is the economy. Things are good. The economy is growing. It might be growing in spite of the government, or maybe the government isn’t as dysfunctional as many people say. If the economy was growing any faster, the trucking industry couldn’t get goods to the store shelves fast enough.
Number 10 has is the overall labor supply shortage in the United States. There is almost no labor reserve remaining.
BT: What is the state of the tank truck industry today?
Miller: The numbers would tell you that the industry is on the mend. Even though the oilfield has been down, chemical hauling in general has been going great guns for almost two years.
The forecast numbers say the industry is getting better financially, and I would contend we have been on a good growth pattern for the past two years.
While the driver shortage can be seen in some ways as our friend on the rate side, we must address the capacity issue. If we don’t do something about capacity, the shippers will.
Turning to safety, the tank truck industry is safer today than ever before. NTTC has aggressively promoted a safety culture by splitting the Heil Trophy into two divisions. It gives more fleets the opportunity to compete for the top safety award.
The driver-of-the-year award has been spectacular. It speaks to the strength and depth of the drivers working in this business. These drivers are just amazing.
Another thing we are doing is getting deeper into educational offerings. We are the only organization running Cargo Tank Workshops with the US Department of Transportation. We’ll do at least five this year, and we can do them on-demand for state trucking associations. We’ve developed our Tank Truck University webinar offerings as well.
BT: Is NTTC helping to change public perceptions with the Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year program and community outreach?
Miller: We hope so. That is one thing that will be part of the strategic plan going forward. We want to bring new people into truck driving, and improving the image helps.
Government and the educational system helped push people away from blue-collar work by insisting that they need to go to college. Not everybody wants to go to college, and that has contributed to the growing shortage of truck drivers and technicians.
BT: Do we have enough vehicle maintenance technicians?
Miller: No, we don’t. The need for skilled labor simply is not being met in this country. The big question is how do we get skilled people into the labor force to serve the trucking industry?
BT: Should NTTC get involved with this issue?
Miller: Absolutely. It is becoming a strategic priority for the industry to address the workforce issues. Whether we can move the needle even a little bit remains to be seen, but we would be remiss if we didn’t even try. I’m talking about NTTC membership getting involved through action committees.
BT: How much technology is coming into the industry right now?
Miller: A lot. Harold Sumerford Jr (chief executive officer of J&M Tank Lines Inc) recently drove a truck from Atlanta to Birmingham, and he said he was tremendously distracted by all of the buzzers, bells, and lights from the various safety systems that are available. I think drivers tune out the alerts over time.
BT: What are your thoughts about on-board cameras?
Miller: Mainly good. Managing the data can be a challenge. There is way too much data. We must learn how to manage the data so we don’t overwhelm our terminal and safety managers.
I do like cameras in the truck, especially forward facing because of the events that take place around a truck on the road. Some of our owner-operators have installed their own cameras. I think the rear-facing cameras also have benefits, but there are privacy issues to be considered.
BT: What other technology are you putting in your trucks?
Miller: We’re trying a few automatic transmissions. I still have concerns about some of the engine technology going forward. Fuel economy has been improving with the newer engines.
BT: What is the state of NTTC?
Miller: We have incredible leadership in Dan Furth, and we now have a team that knows the pulse of the industry. We have a well-rounded staff. We’re putting the emphasis on education. The board of directors can now focus on charting the course for the association.
BT: Why do other tank truck carriers need to be a part of the association?
Miller: NTTC serves as an advocate for the industry. We track state and federal issues. For instance, we’re involved with trying to shut down the California rest break requirement, which is a bad deal for trucking companies and their drivers. It interferes with interstate commerce.
BT: Is NTTC achieving success with efforts to preempt state rules that conflict with federal regulations?
Miller: Yes. NTTC does a great job of catching these issues early. We have significantly better legal and lobbying representation today. We’re also in a very strong financial condition, and we have funds available to finance our efforts.
We’re the only organization that fought against the proposed mandate to ban wet lines, and we won. We may have to face off on a possible side-underride mandate in the near future.
NTTC didn’t have to develop the Liquid Product Database, but we did because that will have an impact on every tank truck carriers’ equipment. It will help shippers, as well. All in all, I believe this association is serving the industry very well.