In case anyone has forgotten how bad the driver retention problem was for linehaul fleets in 1993 and 1994, we are likely to have a replay of the situation over the next couple of years. Business is improving rapidly for fleets, traffic is increasing at 10% annual rates for the near term, and fleets are making sure they have enough rolling stock.
What's missing is the proportionate growth in available drivers. There have been notable attempts by fleets to secure experienced drivers, like J.B. Hunt's recent offer to significantly raise driver pay. But these programs are not widespread, and do more to shuffle drivers from one fleet to another rather than to attract more people overall to the industry.
In 1993 the industry got caught short for equipment and drivers. The 1991-1992 recession disguised the fact that the painful "wringing out" of excess capacity from deregulation, which took ten years, had finally ended. The industry was so used to having too much capacity that it took a year to realize that linehaul fleets were going to have too much business to handle.
The same kind of cycle is shaping up for the near term. Traffic growth is good, based on normal (4%) annual growth in industrial production, and inventory build by retailers and wholesalers will add a bulge for the next few months. We expect traffic to keep growing at moderate-to-healthy rates, and the industry needs to increase its capacity proportionately.
Equipment is not so much a problem for fleets. Sales of heavy trucks didn't drop off as sharply as in other cycles, and more fleets are back in the market making sure they are not caught with any capacity constraints.
OEM programs, such as guaranteed buy-back deals, have also prompted fleets to trade in a couple of years earlier. Trucks, especially Class 8 over-the-road vehicles, are improving with every new model, and their cost per mile is so attractive that fleets can advance the trade-in cycle a little sooner.
Many fleets have indicated that they are buying a little in front of actual demand -- just to make sure that they are not caught short like in '93 and '94. Whatever the reasons, truck sales haven't fallen quite in proportion to the slowdown in traffic over the last couple of years, so fleets won't be as badly pinched for rolling stock.
It's a different story for drivers, however. There isn't a factory that can run overtime to produce more of them, and there isn't a convenient fence to back excess drivers up to so they are there when you need them.
All of the issues related to the driver-retention problem that were urgently discussed a few years ago are still lurking, waiting to ambush the truckload fleets. They haven't disappeared. And to be honest, even though the industry has been given a breather since 1994, there haven't been many significant moves made by fleets to cultivate drivers. It's that tough a problem. The industry has had three years to put programs in place that would prevent another cycle of the driver shortage. There just haven't been any great ideas implemented and, not surprisingly, we are headed for another round.
In terms of demographics and the available labor pool, we are probably in worse shape this year than in '93-'94. The economy has expanded moderately since then, and unemployment rates have improved as the available workers find jobs. The core demographic group that contributes the most to the linehaul driver segment -- white males 18-45 years of age -- is still declining as a percentage of all workers.
Wages haven't made much of a move over the last few years either. On average, driver compensation -- for company drivers and owner-operators -- has paced overall inflation since 1994, maybe a touch better. But that's about all. In order to make a real dent in the driver retention problem we need to see 10% increases each year for two or three years, and that's just not happening.
If there really was an effective plan out there, we wouldn't be just talking about the problem. The question is: Which fleets will be first to lock in preferred drivers before the crunch hits?