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October 26, 2018 10:30 AM, EDT

Opinion: Times Are Good, but Our Industry Can't Rest

It is a great time to be in trucking. Signs demonstrating the strength of our industry and economy are everywhere.

They blanket the route driven by America’s Road Team Captain David Boyer, who described them to President Donald Trump less than two weeks ago when he represented American Trucking Associations in the Oval Office. Signs from Virginia to Memphis and back all proclaim: “Help Wanted.”

It seems every day a new indicator is released demonstrating our economy is booming. As a result, times have never been better for our industry. Nationwide, we now have more job openings than unemployed people looking for work. An expanding economy means more trucks on our nation’s roads.

Chris Spear

Spear

Household consumption is rising and the manufacturing, housing construction and retail sectors may be as strong as they have ever been — all of which translates to increased business for trucking.

For-hire truck tonnage is up nearly 8% this year — and that’s on top of the gains we saw in 2017. With all this freight to be hauled, it’s no wonder that our friends in the business of building trucks and trailers are also enjoying record-setting performance.

Increased demand for freight is driving our industry to buy more trucks and trailers than ever before — a trend kicked into high gear by the historic tax reform bill enacted last year.

It is indeed a very good time to be in trucking, but as we well know, our industry and the economy are cyclical in nature, which is why now is also the time to tackle unfinished business. Rather than rest on the strength of our economy, it is imperative we take charge of the issues that threaten our future prosperity. To borrow a refrain from my home state of Wyoming: If you don’t make dust, you eat dust.

At the top of this list remains the ongoing abuse of state meal and rest break rules by the plaintiffs’ bar.

In recent weeks, we have petitioned the Department of Transportation to pre-empt these duplicative rules and reaffirm once and for all a single federal standard for interstate drivers to follow — one that isn’t written in Sacramento nor enforced by trial attorneys.

I am confident common sense will win out by year’s end, and this petition will put to rest this abuse of the system by these glorified ambulance chasers, allowing our industry to move on to the pressing business before us.

One of those key issues is workforce development. The single biggest headwind facing our industry is attracting, training and retaining enough people to move nearly 11 billion tons of freight the economy produces annually. The driver shortage is real, it’s growing and it’s being felt across the industry.

There is no one solution to this challenge, which is why we are approaching it from several different directions. We’re working to better align with federal, state and local labor agencies to identify talent in urban areas. We’re doing more to reach out to women and minorities — two populations historically underrepresented in this profession — to bring them into the fold. And we’re pressing policymakers to unleash perhaps our country’s greatest asset: our young people.

Today, in 48 states across the country, 18-year-olds are legally permitted to hold a commercial driver license and deliver goods within the confines of their state. But the moment they cross a state line, they are in violation of federal law. Moreover, these 48 states are completely void of any standardized instructional requirements. Training is key; teaching young talent to operate this equipment safely and responsibly is paramount — and no different than how our own military trains an 18-year-old to protect our freedom. Advocating apprenticeship-based training and truck technologies for young talent to drive across state lines will significantly improve the safe movement of our nation’s freight and help alleviate the surging shortage of truck drivers.

As we work to ensure our industry has the workforce it needs to carry our economy forward, defining what those drivers and trucks will do — in light of evolving technology — may well be the most pressing challenge for our industry in the future.

The media loves to tout a future filled with “driverless trucks,” a future both airlines and trucking industries know is far from imminent. Despite state-of-the-art avionics in commercial planes, we still have pilots flying them. The same is true for truck drivers. Adverse conditions, hazardous cargo, cityscapes and pickups and deliveries are all sound reasons hard-working professionals will continue driving commercial trucks.

The release of the Department of Transportation’s latest automated vehicle guidance — AV 3.0 — underscores innovation, and that it must include commercial vehicles. With this new policy framework, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao makes clear that innovation won’t be suffocated by senseless government regulations. Most importantly, this federal guidance opens the door for our industry to reap the potential benefits of driver-assist technologies — making the job of moving our nation’s goods easier, safer and more efficient.

Times haven’t been this good in trucking for decades. But it isn’t time to rest. ATA remains fully committed to the needs of our members, creating long-term growth that benefits our industry, customers and America.

American Trucking Associations is the largest trade federation in the trucking industry and has headquarters in Arlington, Va., as well as affiliated associations in every state. ATA owns Transport Topics.