Something’s gotta give

For years, proposals to relax truck size and weight restrictions haven’t gained much traction. Highway safety advocates oppose the idea in a knee-jerk fashion. And during an era of ample capacity and soft freight rates, the issue just wasn’t that relevant to much of the trucking industry, especially truckload carriers. Many believed that adding a trailer axle, for example, would just mean buying new equipment so shippers could shove more stuff on the truck and pay about the same for the load.

The relationship between carriers and shippers has changed, at least for the moment. Capacity is tight relative to demand, and an increase in the number of trucks isn’t likely soon. In the near term, tight capacity is great for carriers’ bottom lines, of course. But an extended period of tightening capacity could stunt carriers’ ability to grow and create economic disruptions that ultimately won’t be in the interest of either the trucking industry or the U.S. economy. Interest in loosening truck size and weight restrictions and other moves to increase the productivity of existing resources is bound to grow.

Skeptics contend that the current attention paid to tight trucking capacity is much ado about nothing. They argue that the U.S. trucking industry is just enjoying the happy side of an unusually intense business cycle and that a swing the other direction is inevitable, as is a swing back and so on. That is true, but short-term business cycles occur within long-term shifts. A huge shift looming on the horizon is the supply of labor.

Within 10 years the Baby Boom generation will begin retiring in large numbers, creating an economy-wide labor shortage that would grow steadily worse. There will be fewer workers, but more people will be needed to care for the elderly as they grow older.

Consider this trend in light of the current driver situation. A survey of CCJ readers last month found that 62 percent pegged a shortage of drivers as the most significant factor limiting the growth of their fleets. So the long-term outlook for drivers is bleak, but the economy will grow. Without more drivers, trucks must be able to handle more freight or drivers must become more productive.

Increasing load capacity is a fairly simple – albeit controversial – matter of changing some laws and addressing some infrastructure issues. Public perception may demand more safety systems on trucks to avert accidents, but by the time we get to the point of loosening restrictions, those systems will be mature and more affordable.

Productivity is a far more complex problem. Long term, the trucking industry must accept that the truck driver is a precious resource that can’t be wasted on deadheads, layovers and dock delays. That may mean more relays and cross-docking and far fewer long-haul trips. Live loading and unloading could be abandoned. The notion that a particular truck is somehow dedicated to a particular driver may become a foreign concept.

But even as we address equipment and driver productivity, there will be opportunities to find more drivers. Higher wages will help some, but wages throughout the economy presumably will rise as well. The more promising opportunity lies in one consequence of a chronic labor shortage: increased immigration. Carriers will need to find inroads into immigrant communities. Trucking may even tap the final frontier: women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 5 percent of truck drivers are female. Some of the steps that could make drivers more productive, such as eliminating time at docks and in sleepers far from home, might make trucking more appealing to women.

The problem with major societal changes is that by the time they occur you have lost your best chance to capitalize on them. Start positioning your operation today for 2015.