Jack Roberts

Updated Jan 5, 2011

Jackntitled 1Shaken and stirred

Industry must get ahead of the looming driver shortage

“Goldfinger” recently was on television again. I love all the original James Bond films and couldn’t say how many times I’ve seen them all. Still, one scene in this film caught my attention this time around and gave me a chuckle: After getting his assignment, Bond heads down to the shop to check out his Aston Martin DB5, only to be admonished by the Secret Service armorer, Q, to “bring it back in one piece this time!”

Bond, pretending to be hurt, replies, “Everything you give me – ”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Q snaps, cutting him off. “Everything I give you is treated with equal contempt!”

I’d never really thought of old Q as a fleet manager, but it stands to reason. The poor man stays cooped up in his lab all day, constantly repairing, maintaining, developing and tweaking vehicles and equipment, only to have 007 waltz in, take his high-tech gizmos out in the field and trash them.

But James Bond as a truck driver? Well … I’ve talked to a few drivers over the years who’ve regarded themselves as modern-day 007s. And it is true that Sean Connery was in fact a truck driver before making it big in the movies; he landed his first big part in a forgotten movie called “The Hell Drivers” precisely because he could drive a truck.

And while I don’t think we’ll see drivers in suits hanging out in the lounge sipping vodka martinis anytime soon, if all present indications are correct, truck drivers are about to become a highly valuable commodity. In fact, many industry analysts say a “perfect storm” of outside factors will make driver recruiting, training and retention over the next few years more crucial than ever.

For starters, truck driving historically has been a job of last resort for many people. And while senior drivers and owner-operators can do quite well, entry-level drivers typically have to endure low pay, long hours, tough routes and lengthy stretches away from home before they build up the seniority – or job-hop around enough – to increase their earning power.

Talking with drivers is the best way to find out what they want.

So driving is a tough sell from the get-go. Add in the fact that the current driver work force is aging rapidly. Estimates vary, but mean ages of about 55 for owner-operators and about 47 or 48 for fleet drivers generally are cited and point to the fact that many drivers will begin retiring in the coming years – and there are far too few young people lining up to replace them.

On top of that, Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) has shifted the balance of power in fleets somewhat, meaning drivers today will have a vested interest in the maintenance, performance and condition of a tractor-trailer. Equipment concerns will have to be addressed promptly by technicians to ensure loads are moved on time.

Additionally, CSA now will track individual driving records, and safe and productive drivers will rise to the top of the pyramid quickly and command top pay for their services. They’ll also find themselves receiving almost constant offers to “jump ship” and make an even bigger paycheck driving for somebody else. At the same time, the thinking goes, all this monitoring and tracking will mean the unsafe, unprofessional drivers quickly will find themselves weeded out.

So, once again the world of trucking is changing. For fleets that aren’t yet thinking about how these factors are going to affect their business, it’s time to start. Options are available to attract and keep drivers – bonuses and more home time spring readily to mind. But a good place to start might be simply to sit down with a cross-section of current drivers and talk to them. Try to gain some insight as to what motivates them and how they see their role changing in the coming year. What fleets learn now could go a long way toward heading off a crisis if the predicted driver shortage hits home. n

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jack Roberts’ column last month incorrectly identified Doug Lenz as Don Lenz. We apologize for the error.

JACK ROBERTS is Executive Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail jroberts@ccjmagazine.com or call (205) 248-1358.