Drivers, fuel prices top list of fleet concerns

Although freight demand has been stable enough that the intense driver shortage that many fleets feared has not occurred, driver availability remains a critical issue for more than three-quarters of trucking industry leaders. In a recent poll conducted by email, 77% of fleet managers said the industry faces a chronic shortage of qualified drivers. The poll was sponsored by FirstFleet Corp.

To combat the shortage of drivers, many fleets are attempting to recruit independent contractors as full-time operators instead of hiring company employees.

“The owner-operator is a tough breed to find now,” says Jack Sypolt, recruiting manager for Gordon Trucking, a truckload carrier of dry freight and refrigerated products based in Pacific, Washington. “The last three years have been rough on them. But we're looking for them because not just anyone can go out and buy a truck in this industry and make a living at it. There's a lot of professionalism and experience among independents, and that's why we're recruiting them.”

Gordon offers incentives to independent contractors that include payment for licenses, permits, and insurance as well as paying for fuel. Fuel prices are making trucking a tough business and are actually driving many out of the industry, Sypolt says. “Our offer to pay for their fuel is winning a lot of interest in us from independents,” he says.

Central Refrigerated Service in Salt Lake City has a different approach to attracting operators. Central has a leasing program that provides premium tractors equipped with all the bells and whistles owner-operators want at a low weekly lease payment. “We find that most owner-operators want quality equipment — that's first and foremost with them,” says Cody Issacson, manager of owner-operator programs at Central. “But it's hard for them to get the premium equipment they want. Realistically, they need to put $10,000 to $15,000 down just to buy the truck they want and most can't do that.”

Central's recruiting program centers on leasing high-end tractors, mostly new W900 Kenworths to potential owner-operators. The program has generated a significant number of new independent contractors in just the past three months. “We try to make the payments as low as possible to help these guys make money while operating the kind of equipment they would want to buy,” Issacson says. “Now, this takes a lot of money on our end to do it, but we believe if we put drivers in a position where they are happy and can make money, the company makes money as well. It's always hard, but it's what we have to do to stay competitive in this market for drivers.”

In addition to concerns about drivers, respondents to the FirstFleet survey were concerned about the price of fuel and maintenance costs. Included in the concern over fuel prices is a search for ways to improve fuel economy. Slightly more than 60% of respondents said they were adjusting tractor specifications to reduce fuel consumption. Another 59% said they were attempting to handle the maximum payload on every route to improve fleet utilization. Some fleets use on-board tracking and monitoring devices to manage routes and cut fuel consumption resulting from excess mileage.

Several respondents noted specific strategies for reducing fuel consumption. One manager said that consolidating fuel purchases through a national program has helped. Another reported increased driver training to stress fuel economy, and a third said that a fuel shutoff to stop the engine after 75 minutes of idling was under consideration.

Fuel economy and maintenance costs also play a role in fleet replacement plans with 93% of those surveyed saying that they would replace at least 25% of their fleet within the next year and 72% said that they would replace at least half the fleet within the next two years. Survey respondents attribute at least part of this replacement decision to the new exhaust emission regulations that will become effective in 2007 with most of those surveyed saying they plan to replace at least 38% of the fleet before the new rules apply.

On-board electronics is a hot topic among fleet managers with 50% reporting the use of some sort of wireless communication for improved productivity. An additional 37% of respondents plan to install remote tracking/communication systems within a year. While tracking systems were originally sold on the basis of providing vehicle location and recovery if stolen, only 13% of survey respondents report using the systems for that purpose. A large majority, 81%, uses monitoring to manage driving patterns and to help develop equipment specifications to improve fuel economy and reduce maintenance requirements.

Survey respondents by a 53% majority said that the security measures instituted by the trucking industry in the past three years have helped those in the US feel safer. Although new rules from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration require a portable driver history and extensive background screening for applicants, 77% of respondents reported that they were already doing in-depth background checks on drivers. According to 43% of respondents, the new screening regulations have simplified the hiring process for qualified drivers.

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