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  • Larry Thomas

Truck driver shortage looms as toughest issue

OsieckiOsiecki
ATLANTA - A weak economic recovery and some potentially onerous new government regulations aren't helping, but a key trucking industry lobbyist said the industry's most pressing problem may be a shortage of qualified drivers.
     During a speech at Furniture /Today's annual Logistics Conference, Dave Osiecki, senior vice president of policy and regulatory affairs for the American Trucking Assns., said the industry is facing a potential shortfall of 239,000 drivers in 10 years.
     And to avoid that shortfall, he said research complied by ATA shows trucking companies need to hire more than 96,000 new drivers per year to account for industry growth and replace an aging workforce that's rapidly approaching retirement.
     "We simply can't find enough qualified people to operate our trucks," Osiecki told conference attendees.
     He said trucking companies are receiving plenty of job applications, but the vast majority of applicants are disqualified because of a poor driving record, health concerns, a criminal record, or restrictions from the trucking company's insurance carrier.
     And because qualified drivers are in such high demand, many companies are having trouble keeping the ones they do hire. Osiecki told the audience that, except for recession strapped 2009 and 2010, the truck driver turnover rate has exceeded 75% every year since 1996. And it topped 100% annually from 2002 through 2007.
     He said the industry could help with driver retention by increasing wages, which have fallen by 11% in inflationadjusted dollars since 1990, but also needs to reach out to other demographic groups to have any chance of meeting the long-term demand for drivers.
     Osiecki specifically urged the industry to recruit more women - 96% of today's drivers are male - and military veterans.
     He said many veterans have truck driving or other logistics transportation experience that could be valuable to the industry.
     On regulatory matters, Osiecki told the audience he's anxiously awaiting a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals on ATA's challenge to the new hours-of-service rules that are supposed to take effect July 1.
     He said he believes ATA had a solid case, and hopes the court will render a decision before that date. However, he said trucking companies should be prepared to make changes in their operating procedures in case the rules have to be implemented.
     "The government should be able to regulate things when they have a good reason for it, but in this case, they don't," Osiecki said.
     He said a rule requiring a 30-minute off-duty rest break after eight hours of driving, for example, would hurt productivity since such a break would realistically become 40 to 50 minutes, counting the time the driver searched for a place to park his truck and performed routine maintenance checks.
     Breaks for meals or naps are considered off-duty time, but doing paperwork, truck maintenance or any other work-related activity does not meet the requirement.
     The trucking association says the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Assn., the agency that regulates trucking, did not demonstrate any statistically significant difference in the safety benefit of an off-duty break versus an on-duty break from driving.
     In other regulatory matters, Osiecki:
● Predicted the government's registry of certified medical examiners for truckers will be far short of the 40,000 that are needed by the May 2014 implementation date. He said only 900 are currently registered, and another 8,000 to 9,000 registrations are pending. In 2014, truckers will be required to undergo a rigorous physical exam at least every two years.
● Said proposed rules regarding the use of electronic log books should be issued this fall, pushing back the publishing of the final rules until at least the fall of 2014. Osiecki said that means the new rules won't take effect until late 2016 at the earliest.
● Predicted some form of a sleep apnea test will become part of a driver's medical exam.
● Said ATA supports a fuel tax increase tied to a cost-of living index. That would provide a much more sustainable funding mechanism for highway construction and maintenance, he said.

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