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I want to tell you about the dark secret that nobody in the industry wants to talk about and no one can easily fix: the truck driver shortage. If you interview the graduating class from 100 different high schools across America and you ask them what they plan to do with their lives, virtually nobody is thinking “I want to be an over-the-road truck driver.” The reality is the ones who do may not only ultimately hold the high ground, but provided the inevitable changes keep coming, may also prove to reach six-figure incomes long before any of their classmates.

DRIVER WAGES

Adding insult to injury, the income for truck drivers sits about even with a manufacturing job where you are in a heated building and home every night. With the economy strong and less than 5 percent unemployment, the only way to get employees today is to steal them from another job. “This increase in employment is substantial but is likely also not enough to fully relieve the capacity pressures in the industry,” according to Seth Carpenter, the manager US economist at UBS. “We find that a 1 percentage-point increase in construction wages leads to a contraction in trucking employment of about 3.5 percent ... In other words, construction has a stronger ability to pull workers out of trucking than trucking has the ability to pull workers in. Although this is just a statistical relationship, we suspect that the higher average level of wages in construction means that construction is the preferred job for most workers.” Being home every night is something most people would like to have if they can. How will the industry attract drivers if there is no incentive? They won’t. It’s that simple.

THE SHORTAGE

The American Trucking Association predicts a quarter of a million drivers shortage within 3 years. Over the past 20 years the trucking industry has changed and with attractive jobs in technology and other fields taking candidates out of the work force, coupled with the lowest unemployment rates we’ve seen in fifty years, we are in trouble as an industry that relies on trucking to make the final delivery of all of our products. Truck drivers are aging out and retiring. The ones that are not retiring are leaving the industry on the heels of the new EDLs (electronic data logs) where big brother not only gets to see what you did for hours of operation, but also get to retroactively penalize and fine you for violations. The days of “fudging the log” are over.

Consider moving a load of salt from the production mine under the Great Lakes to the population center of Washington DC. It used to take about 7 ½ hours to complete the less than 400-mile trip. Today, restricted hours of operation laws coupled with miserable traffic snarls in the population centers has so adversely impacted that move that it may take two or more days to complete. Would you work for two days for the pay of one day’s work? Of course not. The shortage of drivers and shortened hours of legal operation have combined into a perfect storm of trouble and price rises.

“On average, trucking will need to recruit nearly 100,000 new drivers every year to keep up with demand for drivers, with nearly two-thirds of the need coming from industry growth and retirements,” states Bob Costello, American Trucking Association chief economist.

PREDICTABILITY

In my last State Of Salt, I addressed ways to see trouble coming driven by frequent weather events. If you add in the shortages of truck drivers, that problem may come much more quickly. For example, a lane we frequently service in our business is New Jersey to Boston. For that lane we could get vans (tractor trailer) to go from New Jersey to Boston for less than $600 5 years ago. Two years ago, it was up to $800. Now it is close to $1,500 to make the same 250-mile run. When those costs are applied to the deicing product is inside those trucks, it is significant. Worse still, can we get a load delivered at any price as a result of a driver shortage.

Regional and local haulers have not yet figured out that their value is much higher than the rates they are charging because local hauling for bulk rock salt for example is treated the same way rates for a load of gravel is treated. Perhaps even worse, is the fact that dump trailers hauling salt in winter at very low municipal supply contract prices actually make their money in summer moving materials at their prices. That creates a landscape whereby the companies hiring the trucks (salt suppliers) have always in the past set the rates the salt companies will pay and then trucks decide if they want to work for that rate or pass. The tail wags the dog. As awareness of the value of both short and long-haul trucking is recognized, the local rates will rise too. Contractors are aware that the prices paid to haul snow away on an emergency basis is far greater than the price paid to haul salt under contract and that is another strong indication of just how marginal salt hauling really is for the trucking companies.

In the past, the biggest variable in trucking cost was fuel. That variable swung so much 25 years ago the concept of fuel surcharges evolved, and they continue today. It’s the only way the trucking companies can recover the costs of fuel when they have agreed on a contract rate for a set period of time. This is going to change and not to the favor of the consumer.

Currently, the only control valve on truck supply is pricing and the market is flooded with freight brokers offering great rates. However, after they give a commitment to move product at that great rate, they are finding they cannot get any trucks to take the load for the rate they offered. Inevitably, the company buying the trucking service is told, “we lost the truck” , which is code for “I never really had a truck but shot you a low rate to get you to commit to me, then I started looking for a truck” quickly followed by, “we have a truck that can take that load today, but it is [fill-in-the-blank] percent higher than what we quoted”. Understand this is where it is now, and you can see where things are going.

Salt is the least expensive most abundant commodity winter product on the planet. Mining cost hasn’t changed, but the costs of inland trucking transportation skyrocket. Transportation availability is tight and moving towards strangling. So, plan early and commit to buying early, allowing plenty of time for delivery. The world of “just-in-time” inventory is over in the salt business, and it will grind to a standstill if we experience winter events that come in frequently and are on-going for weeks. The market will collapse not because there is no salt, but because there no trucks to deliver it.

Rob English is the president of Chemical Solutions Inc. and is a frequent Snow Magazine contributor.