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Transportation Trends: A lack of truck drivers plagues transportation companies

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Commercial truck drivers are needed to move products, but the industry is struggling to attract and retain them.

That dilemma took center stage at a conference on transportation trends presented by Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti LLP and Sobel & Co. LLC at the Hyatt Regency in Morristown on Thursday.

Ronald Leibman, Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti partner and co-chair of the firm’s transportation and logistics group, said the industry needs 890,000 new drivers between the years 2015 and 2024. He proposed the industry raise driver salaries and recruiting from among workers displaced from other industries.

On the subject of self-driving trucks, Leibman hates them.

“I want to know that when my kids are driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, my kids are safe,” Leibman said. “The US Airways plane that landed safely on the Hudson River saving 170 people’s lives was a human decision. A computer would have sent the airplane into a building.”

He stressed the importance of the transportation industry in New Jersey.

“Everything you ate today, your clothes, the tablecloth and chairs traveled by truck,” Leibman said. “We are a transportation hub. The state derives money from taxes. We have ports and intermodal hubs. If you cannot move a product, you cannot buy a product.”

Michele Brown is CEO of Choose New Jersey, an independently funded and operated nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster economic growth in New Jersey. She said the lack of drivers stems from a branding image.

“Driving for Uber is cool, but driving a truck is not cool,” Brown said. “When the economy is good, people go to better jobs and truck driving is less attractive. This [commercial driving] occupation has a coolness factor. Can we attract a better workforce if you are gone for one week a month instead of two weeks at a time? You are home to spend time with family.”

She would never want her daughter to be a trucker because she fears for her safety, Brown said and suggested setting up truck stops with separate facilities for women.

“Kids do not object to working 14 hours per day,” Brown said. “They want to work in a fun environment. If you are running the trucking company, and you do not make it a fun environment, you are not advancing.”

Michael LaForge, a Sobel & Co. certified public accountant, said his brother is a 66-year-old truck driver and works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., earning $40,000 annually in Richmond, Va. He is dealing with colleague drivers failing drug tests and simply not coming to work, which places extra responsibilities on him.

“Older workers face physical barriers in getting into these trucks,” LaForge said. “Drive to Pennsylvania on Sunday morning. Return to New Jersey on Sunday night. See the trucks waiting on Interstate 78 to get into New York City”

LaForge contrasted overnight truck drivers with FedEx and UPS drivers. The latter group wear uniforms and “you interact with them. They go home at night. They know who they are.”

Sobel & Co. principal Chris Young said the transportation industry experienced consolidation because of these driver shortages. He expects to see niche transportation companies coming together.  

“A long-term trend will be driverless vehicles despite the unwelcome news with Tesla,” Young said. “You see Uber and Uber Eats. Where does that play long-term? Keep your eyes open. Is there a way to have a global Uber and consolidate that marketplace?

“We believe there are going to be premiums paid for logistics companies in the short term,” Young said. “We believe companies like Walmart and Amazon are going to move into long-haul providers.”

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David Hutter

David Hutter

David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at dhutter@njbiz.com.

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