As pandemic continues, drivers should adapt to the changing market

Amidst the industry’s current driver shortage and news of additional motor carrier shut downs, the COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of concern for drivers wondering where to make their next move.

The key for drivers to survive these challenging times lies mostly on whether or not they’re willing to adapt to the ever-changing demands of the market. Considering a change of cargo may require a different trailer, but it could mean the difference between profitability and financial struggle.

“I think the drivers that have aligned themselves properly are the ones that are hauling the right types of freight and are positioned to be able to sustain themselves through these times,” said Brandon Richards, Reliance Partners’ Chief Sales Officer.

He continued, “The right types of freight are going to be consumer commodity freight. We’re talking dry van and reefer trailers hauling food products and refrigerated goods that people absolutley must have.”

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) implemented an emergency declaration waiver to counteract the rapid depletion of medical and consumer goods. The agency has since expanded its emergency waiver to include raw materials such as paper, plastics and fuel used to make essential items.

“I think the ones that are going to be suffering will be the haulers in industries deemed non-essential such as those in the automobile, construction and oil industries,” Richards said. “Frac-sand and crude oil haulers are going to see a big hit.”

John Seidl, vice president of risk services at Reliance Partners, explained how one Pennsylvania fuel hauling company changed its service offerings in response to FMCSA’s emergency relief.

After performing voluntary layoffs, the 140-truck fleet was forced to find profitability by other means. Seidl said the company has since rented trailers and is now looking for success hauling general freight under the emergency relief.

“A few of their trucks are still running fuel but to offset some of the losses they’re now getting into an industry they quite frankly have never been in,” Siedl said.

Owner-operators, too, are venturing into uncharted lanes. Richards said that larger fleets are willing to recruit and hire independent truckers more so than others because they have the liquidity and capital heading into these trying times. 

“We’re seeing owner-operators move away from their own authority to start leasing to other people because they’re looking for those companies that have the right type of lanes, freight and trailers that can keep them loaded and moving during this tough time,” Richards said.

Although current market conditions have presented various roadblocks for drivers, Richards said that experienced truckers have a better opportunity to position themselves for success than new entrants and recommends new drivers do their research before joining a motor carrier.

“It’s not the right time for owner-operators to start their own authority,” Richards said. “If you do decide to get into the industry, vet the company that you’re going to work for to be sure they are sustainable to get through this crisis and that they’re aligned with the right type of freight to keep you loaded, keep you busy, and keep you working.”

As headlines continue to report motor carrier shutdowns, Richards said he wonders if the industry is even concerned with recruiting new drivers as closures have produced a plethora of experienced drivers who are looking for jobs. Trucking companies are probably more inclined to hire a driver who knows what they’re doing than one that requires preliminary training.

On the other hand, perhaps trucking companies should make more of an effort to attract younger drivers. The trucking industry was short around 60,800 drivers in 2018, which was a 20% increase from 2017, according to the American Trucking Associations

The median age of over-the-road truck drivers is 46, which is four years older than all U.S. workers. The association reported that motor carriers will have to hire around 1.1 million drivers over the next decade – nearly 110,000 per year – to make up for the driver shortage.  

“It’s an industry that is a vital part of our economy and it needs help,” said Ashley Hammonds of Reliance Partners. “We can’t survive with only 30-45 year olds driving trucks.”

Hammonds added that truck driver perks such as high salaries, good benefits, flexibility, and the freedom of the open road could be enticing to high school graduates, especially those not heading to college.

“How many 19-year olds do you know that make $45-50,000?” Hammonds said.

Regardless of whether a trucker has decades of experience or just received his/her CDL yesterday, drivers should closely watch the market to understand the type of freight that’s in high demand. 

In times of great uncertainty, a willingness to adapt to changing conditions is crucial to survival. Misfortune can follow even the most experienced drivers if they don’t act fast.