If commerce is the lifeblood of a city, then trucking is the network of capillaries. Goods arrive and leave by ship or rail. But they ride the first and last mile on the back of a truck. So a shortage of qualified truck drivers poses a real problem.
Brian Fielkow is president of Jetco Delivery, a trucking company based in Houston’s East End.
“You’ve got to look at the long-term trend. The driver pool is aging, and there are not enough young drivers coming out of truck-driving school to replace those drivers, at the same time that the demand for freight is increasing.”
The American Trucking Association puts the driver shortage at about 30,000. That’s out of 3 million on the nation’s roads. But the larger and more vibrant a local economy, the more truckers it needs. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is a former transportation executive.
“Here in Harris County, it’s worse than it is, I think, elsewhere in the nation, and part of that is due to what’s going on in Texas over in the Eagle Ford Shale and places like that.”
It takes a lot of tanker trucks to ship all that shale oil and natural gas to Houston refineries and chemical plants. The pay is good for those willing to endure the long hours. But not everyone can pass the background checks. Drug use and spotty driving records wash out a lot of applicants.
“Most people’s interaction with a truck is when they look in their rearview mirror and see a grille. They want to know that that driver back there is safe.”
Driving long into the night, often for a week or more, takes a toll on truckers. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates chronic fatigue leads to more than 1,000 crashes every year. To combat this, the department enacted new hours-of-service regulations on July 1. Lorie Qualls is manager of Lone Star College’s Transportation Institute.
“Basically, what’s happening is instead of having the ability to drive 82 hours in a seven-day period, they’re losing 15% and going to 70 hours in seven days.”
Once they hit 70 hours, truckers have to take a 34-hour break — including two overnight periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. Again, Brian Fielkow of Jetco Delivery.
“That 34-hour reset really could be as much as almost two full days if the driver times it wrong.”
“Does that mean you wind up having to hire more drivers in order to do the same amount of business?”
“That’s the conventional wisdom, and I happen to agree with it.”
The industry is pulling in truckers as fast as schools like Lone Star can turn them out. But for now, it isn’t nearly fast enough.