Behind the wheel: Trucking industry faces its own shortage
Trucking and the supply chain take many forms, from long-haul cargo deliveries to the truckers who bring food to the processing plants that supply your local grocer.
CALEDONIA — Gary Nation’s link in the supply chain is about 200 miles long most days.
Nation drives a milk truck for Caledonia Haulers, visiting three or four dairies each day, filling his truck with somewhere north of 40,000 pounds of milk per trip to DairiConcepts, a Dairy Farmers of America plant in Zumbrota.
“I just don’t know what I’d do otherwise,” Nation says. At age 70, he enjoys his time behind the wheel. "I enjoy the farmers.”
He’s been loving the job since before he was old enough to do it, legally. Nation started driving a truck – a milk truck – at the age of 15, getting up early to cover a route before going to school. He jokes that his driving instructor knew Nation drove a truck before he could get a license.
“He asked, ‘You going to do this all your life?’” Nation says. “I said, ‘Yes.’”
Back in those days, Nation says he’d load 10-gallon cans of milk into the back of his truck before hauling them to a processing plant. Today, the milk goes from a storage tank on the farm to the tank on the back of his rig that holds up to 53,600 pounds of milk.
On a blustery Thursday in mid-December, Nation’s route takes him to three dairies where he picks up about 46,000 pounds of milk before hauling it to Zumbrota to offload the goods before returning to the truck barn in Lewiston where, the next day, he makes another milk run and does it all over again.
At each stop, he knows the farmers, he knows the cats and dogs, and he knows his routine.
Back up to the milk tank. Connect the hose at the back of the truck to the tank, and start the pump. Collect two samples of milk from each tank. And, when done, rinse out the tank, clean up and put everything back where he found it. Often he slips in and out without the farmers even taking notice.
Keeping out of the ditch
Not every day goes so smoothly.
Driving a truck in Minnesota means dealing with harsh weather.
“We had that chunk snow, 17 inches, a couple of years ago,” he recalls. “I was blocked into the shop up there. I couldn’t get out. But I waited around. At about 12:30 we got going. I worked my way through everything.”
The keys on days like that: communication, patience and perseverance.
“You have to at least try,” he says. “Try more than once.”
He understands that dairies don’t have unlimited storage capacity, so if he can’t pick up the milk, those farmers will lose money. Nation prides himself on not letting that happen.
For a while, Nation owned his own milk route, but eventually he sold it to a processor, then went to work for Caledonia Haulers. He also hauled beef for a bit. But he’s never done the long-haul driving, always sticking to regional routes.
Most days he starts at about 7:30 or 8 a.m. – he’s got coworkers who are up long before the sun – and he’s usually home by 4 p.m. or so.
At 200 miles a day, he still loves his job.
"I’m not the world’s best truck driver,” he laughs as he pulls into Lewiston, the wind buffeting his rig on the two-lane road. “I just keep it out of the ditch.”
Supply chain of truck drivers runs thin
Got a commercial drivers license and need a job?
They’re ready to hire you at Caledonia Haulers.
“Absolutely. As many as you can send our way,” said Jim Gallup, recruiter of driver services at Caledonia Haulers, a trucking company based in Caledonia. “The freight is out there, but we can't find employees fast enough.”
The Houston County company is not alone.
According to the American Trucking Association, there’s a shortage of about 80,000 drivers nationwide today, and that number is likely to double in the next 10 years.
Dennis Gavin, president and CEO at Caledonia Haulers, notes the demographics are not in the industry’s favor. Fifty-seven percent of truck drivers are older than 45, and another 27% are 55 or older. Just 20% of truck drivers are younger than 45.
"That's a pretty alarming number,” Gavin said.
Short supply, high demand
Gavin can reel off a litany of reasons: Federal regulations on hours you can drive, another rule limiting the range of drivers younger than 21, the pay scale, and, perhaps biggest of all, the lifestyle of a long-haul driver.
Tom Gierok, truck driving instructor for Minnesota State College Southeast in Winona, says wages have come up, and some companies are offering five-figure bonuses to new drivers, but preparing someone for the life of a truck driver is hard to replicate in the classroom.
"The big thing is preparation,” Gierok said. “Preparing these new drivers for the lifestyle. They’re not going to be home as much as their friends. They’re going to be missing things other people don’t."
Both Gavin and Gierok agree that one problem that makes the long-haul lifestyle hard is that truck drivers have traditionally been paid by the mile, so when they are stuck in a port or a loading facility waiting for their cargo, they’re not earning any money. And that’s time away from home that’s being wasted.
Gavin adds that new drivers don’t have the same desire to be out on the road 60-70 hours a week. Instead, they want to drive 40 hours and be home for their kids’ birthdays or athletic events. That means it might take twice as many drivers to cover the same mileage, Gavin said.
"Turnover is very high on the first-year drivers," Gierok added.
Rules and consequences
Another factor that reduces the productivity of drivers are ELDs – electronic logging devices – a piece of equipment that monitors the number of hours a driver has been working, whether the wheels are turning or not, and effectively shuts down their rig after either 11 hours of driving or 14 hours on the job during a shift.
While he wants drivers to be safe on the road, Gallup says the ELDs take common sense out of the equation.
"A driver knows when he's tried, but now you have a black box making that decision,” he said.
The result is, as a truck driver gets near the end of his or her allotted time, they start looking for a place to park for the night or risk having the truck’s engine electronically shut down, sometimes within just an hour or so of the destination.
“There’s nowhere to park these darn things,” Gallup said. “About 5:30-6 p.m., go look at the truck stop in St. Charles, they’re filled up.”
The unintended consequence of ELDs, Gallup said, is sometimes drivers may speed up on the road to try to make a destination before the clock runs out.
Fixes for the system
U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's 2nd District, said she’d like to revisit some of the rules that are hampering the trucking industry. She pointed to a pilot program at Dakota County Technical College where students ages 18-20 can be certified with their Commercial driver's license for driving across state lines, something federal regulations currently prohibit.
Gierok pointed to that restriction as one of the main problems in recruiting young drivers to the industry.
“For kids out of high school that’s a three-year window,” Gierok said. “They’re not going to wait the three years to get their CDL. They’re going to find another career path.”
Craig also pointed to two other changes she’d like to see. For drivers hauling livestock, she’d like them to be able to continue with their loads if they’re within 150 miles of their destination no matter what the ELD clock says. She’d also like to repeal the excise tax on new trucks.
“One of the barriers right now is there’s a tremendous excise tax on the cost of the big trucks,” she said. “Those newer technology trucks have such a reduction in carbon emissions, and I personally think we should incentivize trucking companies buying the newer trucks.”
John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association, said that while salaries have gone up 29% in the last two years, the fight for new drivers continues. Part of the problem, he said, is perception.
"Fleets have adjusted routes and length of haul to accommodate the needs of the modern truck driver,” Hausladen said. “Truck drivers today can pick from a variety of local, regional and over-the-road options. Today’s trucks are the safest and most comfortable they have ever been.”
At Caledonia Haulers, Emily Burrichter, the company’s financial analyst, said today’s trucks are “specked out” to make them more comfortable. Gavin added that the company has added terminals in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Janesville, Wis., to allow loads to be relayed between drivers so those drivers don’t have to venture as far from their home.
Trucking is everywhere
Hausladen notes the impact of trucking on every American.
“It is no exaggeration to say that if you got it, a truck brought it,” Hausladen said. "Virtually everything spends some time on a truck. In fact, 96% of Minnesota manufactured tonnage is transported by truck.”
Minnesota state Sen. Gene Dornink, R-Hayfield, sits on a pair of committees that deal directly with trucking. He said trucking is vital to Minnesota’s economy and the nation’s economy.
"Every day when you look out your window, you’ll see trucks delivering packages and semis going the highway,” Dornink said.
He highlighted the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, which need trucks to deliver goods to market and bring in a supply of materials the make products. Like many, he says regulations in the trucking industry have stifled the recruitment of new drivers.
Dornink said that between the regulations drivers face and a reduction in testing stations in Minnesota, the government is making it harder and harder to get and keep that commercial drivers license needed to operate a tractor-trailer on the road.
All this, he said, is compounded by decisions that unnecessarily make more work for truck drivers. Bringing California emissions standards to Minnesota would further back up ports in Minnesota. On top of that, the cry to shut down oil and gas pipelines means that those products must move by rail or, more likely, truck.
“Pipelines are the safest and fastest way to transport crude oil and gas,” Dornink said. “They free up our rail and truck capacity while alleviating the risks of spillage and waste posed by moving these products on the road.”
Trucking touches everything
Gavin pointed to his own business to show how vital trucking is to commerce.
While Caledonia Haulers specializes in transporting food products, the list items the company hauls is endless. Soybean oil, milk, apple juice, honey; just those products alone go on to make everything from Tootsie Rolls and cheese and ice cream and hundreds of other milk-based products to candles and wine and hard ciders.
All the company’s trucks are 100% food-grade certified, and while his employees might just haul one ingredient to a bakery or a winery, they have played a part in a lot of what you eat throughout the region, Gavin said.
And he’d like to haul some more.
“I can buy more trucks,” Gavin said. “I just need people.”