• Powell Slaughter

Immigration concerns impact logistics side

HIGH POINT — Retailers aren’t the only ones concerned about the impact of Hispanics’ concerns regarding the current environment toward immigration.

The logistics side of the industry is impacted both in terms product bottlenecks and filling available positions on the road and in warehousing.

Watkins Shepard Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Ray Kuntz believes a “common sense” path to citizenship will help alleviate labor shortages throughout all aspects for the furniture industry and be good for the economy as a whole.

With low unemployment and competition tight, manufacturers and service providers such as specialized carrier Watkins Shepard are facing an extremely shallow labor pool that needs replenishing.

“It’s hard for us to get dock workers, much less truck drivers, where we’ve had a shortage for a while now,” he said. “Right now there doesn’t seem to be much relief in sight. There aren’t a lot of places we can look to add new blood into the driver pool.”

He sees a possible solution: allowing new immigrants to find steady jobs and work for, say, five years while maintaining a clean record as a way to establish citizenship.

“We need a path to citizenship that means people work, contribute to our society and keep a clean record instead of working illegally,” Kuntz said. “There’s a history that when immigration is strong, it strengthens the housing economy since they need a place to live,” adding that leads to more spending on things like furniture.

Filling the ranks

Global Shippers Assn. CEO and owner Freddie Davis doesn’t know anyone who wouldn’t agree with Kuntz’s suggestion for a “path to citizenship.”

Hispanic truck drivers are concerned about crossing borders these days, he said.

“I just had a conversation with a Top 15 furniture company yesterday,” Davis said. “They were telling me they had challenges getting product out of Mexico because they couldn’t get people to run down there. You had Hispanic drivers going back and there. On the drayage side, there are a lot of immigrants in trucks out there, and refilling those in an industry that has almost 100% turnover a year is a problem. They’re driving a lot of goods from ports.”

Davis is on the Caldwell County (N.C.) economic development board, and with 4.2% unemployment there, it’s harder than ever to fill jobs.

“These are good jobs we have to fill, not just fast food,” he said, and while he believes President Trump understands the importance of immigrants in the work force, the rhetoric out of Washington is sending the wrong message to good people who want to work hard. “I think they’re trying to crack down on the bad guys out there, and they need to explain that.”

Joe Wade, president of Thomasville, N.C.-based specialized carrier Shelba D. Johnson Trucking, said the current immigration/legalization environment puts a damper on hiring people, particularly regarding warehousing personnel.

“If you have plans to expand those services quickly, you have to be particularly careful,” he said.

In terms of drivers, Shelba has had Hispanic drivers in the past who were in the U.S. legally, but now insurance issues are the biggest obstacle to hiring immigrants.

“If we were to have a program to recruit Hispanic drivers, our insurance requirements for two years’ experience are very stringent,” Wade said. “New immigrants might not have that experience without working with someone else or going to truck driver school.”

That’s why Shelba has done a lot of recruiting among ex-military big-rig drivers on one hand and working with community college truck driving schools on the other as military experience and education, respectively, go toward driving experience.

“We check any applicants for legality with E-Verify,” Wade said, both for drivers and in its third-party warehousing operation. “It’s really hard to find warehouse employees, but our bigger problem is getting people who can pass the drug test. … It’s hard to get people willing to do that hard work in the warehouse during summer and winter.”

Changing the rhetoric

“The rhetoric we’ve been hearing the last two or three years should change to a more cooperative solution,” Kuntz said. “What we want is a way for honest, productive families to contribute.

“We built this country on immigration and bring help in, and we need to do something to lighten up this shortage of workers.”

As a self-described eternal optimist, Davis believes most people want to work hard and contribute, but that the tone coming out of Washington frightens potentially productive members of society.

“If we work toward resolution versus resentment we’ll get where we need to be,” he said. “I’m as pro-business as anyone, and I know businesses that were started by Hispanic families. They’re good people, and I want them in my neighborhood. We have to have those people who want to chase the same dream our forefathers did.”

Powell SlaughterPowell Slaughter | Senior Editor

I'm Powell Slaughter, senior editor at Furniture/Today. I returned to the publication in January 2015 after nine years of writing about furniture retail strategies and best practices at a monthly magazine focusing on home furnishings retail operations. Prior to that, I spent 10 years with F/T covering wood furniture, the last five of those as case goods editor. While I cover occasional, home entertainment and home office here, a major responsibility is expanding our attention to the logistics side of the industry. I hope my articles will encourage a dialogue with retailers, vendors, third-party logistics specialists and carriers. I’d love to hear your ideas, concerns and suggestions for smoother flow of material and goods.

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