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October 12, 2009 8:00 AM, EDT

The Tough Keep Going

This Editorial appears in the Oct. 12 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

“That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” That would have been an appropriate theme for the 2009 American Trucking Associations’ Management Conference & Exhibition.

ATA President Bill Graves chose a noble version of the same sentiment, when he described the hard times trucking is going through as a “transformational moment.”

The Great Depression and total deregulation of the industry were such moments in the past. Today, we are beset by loss of faith in a financially secure future, which has made the consumer very cautious about spending; volatile fuel prices, which last year greatly eroded trucking’s own sense of security; and a transfer of political power to a new, more demanding regulatory agenda that stands in stark contrast to its predecessor.

The industry is coping with economic and political forces all but unimaginable a short time ago, when order books were fat to overflowing.

“No matter how you look at it, these are very unsettling and challenging times,” Graves said in his “State of the Industry” address to the convention last week in Las Vegas.

Lessons learned under trying circumstances “should make you better in the future,” Graves noted. These lessons are essential to the overall process of growth, both in personal and business life. Those who do not heed these lessons or fail to put them into practice may not be around for the next great trucking conference.

The deployment of information technology is one of the transformational forces that provide a lifeline to the future; IT makes it possible for trucking to achieve heretofore undreamt efficiencies. Hard technologies are transforming trucking’s beating heart, the diesel engine.

A new generation — perhaps “type” — of driver is needed, who will be able to perform at his or her professional peak. He or she will perform while under a level of scrutiny — of performance, personal conduct and training — previous generations would have been ill-prepared to tolerate.

As the ground shifts under trucking’s wheels, the industry’s managers still must struggle to find and maintain the capital investment that change requires.

Failure to adapt to the ever more complicated, increasingly intrusive operating environment, Graves said, “simply means you cease to exist as a transportation enterprise.”

The survivors of hard times, the apt students of lessons imposed by difficulties, the strong-willed and the tough-minded truckers of today are destined to be the truckers of tomorrow.