Specialty Carriers Face Massive Driver Shortage

Powell Slaughter - Furniture Today, November 29, 2017 - HIGH POINT - The ongoing shortage of truck drivers limiting specialty furniture carriers’ growth and straining existing service capacity to home furnishing retailers shows no signs of improving.

According to the most recent study of the problem released in October by American Trucking Assns., the industry’s major trade organization, the trucking sector as a whole could face a shortfall of more than 50,000 drivers by the end of this year.

Issues include an aging driver workforce, lifestyle issues involving travel and a lack of qualified applicants for available positions. ATA found that if current trends continue, the trucking industry could find itself short of 174,000 drivers by 2026.

The study indicated the shortage seems much worse to carriers than the current figures suggest due to the quality of applicants, who don’t meet driving record standards or have the experience insurers expect. Lowering standards could lead increased insurance premiums and accidents.

Compounding the problem
Specialized furniture carriers face particular challenges in light of the driver shortage. They are called “specialized” for a reason.

Less-than-truckload companies delivering goods to retailers need drivers able to handle multiple stops within restrictive hours-of-service regulation and in some cases offload goods themselves. Home-delivery specialists require drivers who can move and place furniture without damaging goods all while making a good impression with the consumers they visit.

In a market where qualified drivers are at a premium, long-haul carriers are paying more for the simpler job of driving a trailer to a single destination and unhooking the load.

Specialized carriers, along with the rest of the industry, also face a Dec. 17 deadline for compliance with adaptation of electronic logging devices that eliminate any flexibility at all on hours of service for drivers. That, along with technology such as on-board cameras, has met with some resistance from independent contractors and older drivers who decide they’d rather retire than adapt.

Shelba D. Johnson Trucking is lacking eight drivers to fully utilize the equipment it has on hand.

“But that is with stagnant business,” he said. “If we were to grow at our normal rate, we’d need 18.

“There’s not a single person in this room who told their child they should drive a truck for a living.”

Not only is truck driving not a “go-to” career choice for many, it is also true that general commodity and long-haul carriers have caught up to specialty carriers from a pay standpoint as they also have a hard time finding drivers.

“The drivers there don’t have to pull freight and make multiple stops like they do with LTLs,” Tucker said. “We’ve had to bring in a guy whose job is creating a driver recruitment and retention department.”

Working on recruitment
In response, specialty carriers are raising pay, adding perks and looking for ways to lessen the impact of drivers’ time away from their families.

Wiseway Transportation Services currently has 140 drivers but needs 30 more to support its business. It is looking to quality equipment and some extra perks to attract drivers.

“We’ve installed satellite TV equipment in our over-the-road trucks, and with new equipment we’re converting to automatic transmissions,” said Vice President of Sales and Marketing Marcus Cary. “Drivers really like those things.”

Brooks-DeHart Furniture Xpress, which added Shelba D. Johnson’s Florida and Georgia business in July, has managed to hire 20 new drivers since then. Word of mouth helped draw strong applicants.

“They talk to our drivers and find out about home time, pay and benefits we have,” said Anthony Brooks, co-owner. “A lot of drivers have decided if they’re going to run with ELDs, they want better pay. … We’re getting ready to do a big pay increase.”

After ELD, Brooks-DeHart went to $20 pay for each stop and is looking to raise the mileage rate, as well as a longevity bonus, to compete. The company’s concentration in the Florida market also is a plus for drivers  looking for friendly weather conditions.

“Drivers’ pay? I don’t know if there’s a cap on that right now,” Brooks said. “If a driver slaps me, and it’s not too hard, he’s good to go with us.”

As with Brooks-DeHart, Mississippi Furniture Xpress’ concentration of service in the Southeast is an advantage. At the top of its driver-recruitment sheet is “No Northeast,” which President Greg Skoog said is a plus when it comes to attracting applicants looking to avoid heavy congestion and severe weather. Also on the list: “Home twice a week, every week,” “late model equipment” and “New furniture to stores, tailgate only” among other benefits.

That said, driver turnover remains an issue, especially after ELDs come into play. One of four owner operators working with Mississippi Furniture Xpress is “hanging it up” rather than run on ELDs, said Skoog.

“You’re going to see a lot of the one-truck guys getting out of the business,” he said. “We’re looking at a driver-pay increase of 8% to keep drivers (who are) on the fence, but we’re going to lose some older ones.”

Murrow’s Transfer has raised LTL driver pay from 37 cents to 48 cents per mile, as well as a 2 cents/mile on-time delivery bonus, which could increase to 5 cents by the end of the year.

“Drivers today have their pick of where they go for the best pay, the best insurance and the best equipment,” said Steve Ennis, vice president of sales and marketing.

Casting a wider net
Being on ELDs a year before the deadline and hiring a full-time recruiter has helped Sunbelt Express.

“Our employees who bring in a driver that stays six months get $1,000,” added General Manager Stan Froneberger. As with other carriers, though, human capital is the big limiter on Sunbelt’s growth.

“We don’t have the bodies to grow our business,” Froneberger said. “We’re looking to hire outside our core. Specialty carriers have been like the rest of the furniture industry; we used to hire from each other.”

Murrow’s driver turnover has risen from 20% a year ago to around 45% now, and Ennis noted that with their concentration in North Carolina, specialized carriers have been “fishing from the same pot” for driver recruitment.

“We need three drivers today, but we’re advertising for six to eight because we know there’s going to be some fallout,” he said, pointing out that Murrow’s now has a full-time recruiter. “For us, it’s about looking outside this area into other sectors and owner operators.”

Looking ahead
“You can make a good living as a truck driver, but we have to sell the benefits,” said Sunbelt’s Froneberger.

“I have seen the age of the drivers we interview getting younger, but their coming from non-furniture companies, so they need more training,” he said.

Shelba D. Johnson is working with community colleges to develop driver training curricula beyond current certified programs such as the one at Caldwell County Community College. Tucker said that would help create an applicant pool closer to Shelba’s base in Thomasville, N.C.

Wiseway is paying for employees who want to become drivers to go to drivers’ school and created an applicant tracking system.

“We’ve made changes to the website to make it easier to apply and are using social media geared toward drivers,” Cary said. “We’ve gone back to past applicants to see if they’re employed and happy where they are. We’ve pulled some back that way.”