The driver shortage remains a challenge for trucking companies across the board, and the tank truck industry is no exception.
According to the American Transportation Research Institute, the driver shortage now ranks as the top carrier concern for the first time since 2006. But it’s not the only issue vexing carriers; the electronic logging device mandate threatens to tighten capacity just as the overall economy is in growth mode for the first time in years.
The tank truck industry is unique in many ways when compared to our counterparts in the truckload and less-than-truckload segments, and how the sector can address these issues were front and center at a recent National Tank Truck Carriers leadership retreat, where the leaders of our industry prioritized workforce development to address this growing national economic crisis.
Much has been written and opined about driver recruiting and retention for decades, but overall success for the trucking industry remains elusive. In industry reports, truckload carriers report annual turnover numbers in excess of 100%. On the tank truck side, our painful new normal is about 30% turnover, which varies based on region and service modes.
To make matters worse, insurance concerns mean that tank carriers typically demand that incoming drivers have prior tank experience and be at least 25 years old. Others need not apply.
Moreover, many current professional drivers who might consider the tank truck sector are uncomfortable due to the “slosh factor” of the cargo when accelerating or slowing down and the potential dangers associated with hauling hazardous materials. The problem persists despite the tank truck segment’s generally higher driver wages, workload and opportunities to spend time at home.
There are many elements to creating a highly-attractive work experience — new equipment, advanced technology, safety support, respect and appreciation — but chief among them is a competitive compensation package. Truck drivers’ inflation-adjusted wages have been flat this century — can you think of any other sector where that’s the case? Can you think of any career with zero wage growth that people are lining up to join?
I’ve been encouraged recently by what I’m reading in the trade press. According to published reports, to boost retention some carriers are offering salary programs versus pay by the mile, guaranteed bonuses, team bonuses and guaranteed annual increases. Everyone in the distribution chain needs to work together to smooth out the disparities between perception and reality when it comes to recruiting drivers, or the nation’s economic prospects will suffer.
Our path to improvement could include graduated CDL programs to entice younger professional drivers, more meaningful apprenticeship programs, better coordination of local training efforts to expand nationally and greater efforts to recruit women and minorities. We have to lower the barriers to entry to becoming a professional driver and get prospects involved in trucking immediately after high school. Why would a 21-year-old abandon three years of training and experience in one industry to start all over in another? Then, we can start showing those new drivers why trucking is a career rather than a job — a well-paying career that they can be proud of until they’re ready to retire.
Challenge builds character and our industry is resilient, but it is not Teflon. You can’t haul freight without professional drivers. For tank truckers, the NTTC has launched a workforce initiative that is a first step for our members to walk the walk together. We want to dig deep and find out how to make tank trucking a destination for new drivers and the segment of choice for existing ones. We know others are exploring workforce development and we welcome the opportunity to align our efforts. Carriers, shippers, consignees, state associations, national associations, driving schools and varied government entities at every level must step up now. Success requires a broad coalition working together towards a common goal of making trucking a career of choice.
Lee Miller is president and CEO of Miller Transporters Inc., which is based in Jackson, Miss. He also serves as chairman of the National Tank Truck Carriers, the association that has represented the tank truck industry for more than 70 years.