Business News for the Mississippi Delta

Regulations and Fuel Costs are Challenges- Moving Drivers into More Technology is Key

By Mark H. Stowers

Trucks need to be moving from point A to point B at the least amount of cost in the shortest period of time. Technology and regulations are not always aimed at that end though. Today’s truck driver and trucking companies face a litany of regulations they have to maintain on and off the road. Rising fuel costs make it a gamble at times to secure loads. There are plenty of trucks available with routes ready to run, but the men and women behind the wheel are facing challenges with technology and regulations that sometimes make it difficult.

Hal Miller, president of the Mississippi Trucking Association in Jackson notes the same problems discussed last year are still the main challenges for 2018.

“Our two big issues are driver shortage and infrastructure issues,” Miller says. “We are figuring out ways to get more people into the industry. The great news is the economy is booming, but that amplifies the problem in that more goods need to get moved but can’t because of a driver shortage. The numbers are pretty much the same as last year.”

The industry is facing a shortage of nearly 50,000 drivers equating to 50,000 loads sitting somewhere needing a driver, according to Miller. With a predicted shortage of nearly one million drivers by the year 2022, that would put 250,000 loads sitting in docks, fields and ports waiting for a driver. Miller is working with government officials to find ways to ease that burden.

“The industry is trying to reinvent themselves to attract more people into the field, becoming more driver friendly,” Miller says. “The age limit on driving interstate is twenty-one, but intrastate driving in Mississippi allows you to drive at eighteen.”

Miller and transportation officials are trying to figure out ways to make an industry standard age. The industry has instituted two pay raises for drivers to keep them. But infrastructure problems are a safety concern for drivers and trucking firms alike.

“So far the legislature hasn’t been able to come together to present a solution, but we hope they can do that in August,” Miller says. “We are anxious to see what will happen.”

Scores of bridges have been tagged for repair across the state and Miller notes that many other states have raised their fuel taxes to battle infrastructure problems, but not Mississippi. The Mississippi Department of Transportation is responsible for maintaining 30,000 lane miles of highway and 5,767 bridges.

“Congestion costs our industry $64 billion a year in re-routing costs,” Miller says. “Twelve percent of our bridges are structurally deficient, that needs to be dealt with. I think there are only five states with lower fuel taxes than us. We built a great highway program back in 1987, but we haven’t done anything with it since.”

For the past forty-five years, Jimmy Wood has travelled more than 3.5 million miles on American highways and byways.

Wood hauls steel products from both Cleveland and Rosedale all over the United States.

Electronic log books were made mandatory last December. Switching form paper logs to electronic has been difficult for many older truckers. But as the owner of a vehicle manufactured before 2000, Wood is exempt from the mandate.

“I have a 1999 engine in my truck,” he says. “I still operate on paper just like I always have. I don’t use any outside systems.”

Dispatcher Calvin Fleming at Eubanks Trucking likes the electronic log book system as it helps keep up with truck locations as well.

“When you get in, you log in and it keeps up with how much time you work and we can track the truck and tell where it is all of the time,” Fleming says. “Keeping the drivers within the guidelines is the hard part.”

Fleming notes that finding drivers has been the biggest challenge lately.

“We’re hunting drivers. We can’t keep drivers, there’s a driver shortage right now. It’s hard to find anyone to work,” he saiys.

Over at DBR Logistics in Lambert, Larry Barbian faces several challenges including finding good drivers.

“It seems to me, this past year the economy is up and there is plenty of freight out there,” Barbian says. “We need to find good, quality drivers.”

Barbian does like using electronic log books for his company.

“The government mandated electronic logs making it easier on us. It tells the driver when they have to stop and take breaks,” he says.

DBR Logistics has fifteen drivers and Barbian has been in the industry the past seven years.

J&H Diesel out of Greenville has the challenge of finding qualified diesel mechanics. The company repairs diesel injection pumps, school buses, small pick up trucks and medium duty diesel trucks.

“Right now, I’m down one mechanic, but I need two more,” Harper says. “It’s hard to get somebody with diesel engine experience. People get out of training facilities but go to big cities.”

J&H also market turbochargers for diesel engines around the world and repair them as well. After fifty-seven years in business, the company continues to grow.

At T&L Freight, dispatcher Nick Shurden, notes that there’s not much truckers can do about fuel costs, so they focus on challenges they can have more control over.

“Fuel costs are always going to be there, they’ve always been there and will always be a challenge,” Shurden says “What’s really making it challenging for us is the increasing amount of regulation.”

Drivers have to do much more than get a load from A to B on time.

“So much more is asked of a driver,” he says. “The amount of regulations covers everything from hours of service to compliance to safety, and really, accountability is a vital requirement these days. If you don’t have your paperwork straight, your log books the way they see them fit, then they’ll shut you down in a minute. Once you get shut down, that’s lost money. A ten-hour shutdown on the side of the road due to a safety check will ruin your week, and put you behind the eight ball on everything you were planning to do.”

He further explained about the driver shortage defining it not as a shortage of actual bodies, but of those capable of handling the aspects of the job that aren’t part of actually driving.

He notes that many older drivers have found it more difficult to work with log book technology that is taking them from paper and pencil to a computer.

“These older drivers that are used to paper logs and used to doing it their way, the way they’ve always known how to do it. Now they have to take on this new logging system that tracks every little thing you do. If you forget to log something, it costs you money in violations and time down.”

As a dispatcher, Shurden tries to find capable drivers who can handle the government regulations and technical systems.

“Just finding drivers has become a full-time job in itself these days,” Shurden says. “We turn away a lot of drivers who can’t actually work these systems. We train them, watch instructional videos and send them out for a week and we’ll have some problems, so we bring them back in and do it all over again. Over time, they just don’t understand it. It’s caused a lot of people to get out of these trucks and find something else. Others just simply retire.”

He also explains that those coming into the workforce don’t have the same dedication and work ethic as older drivers in taking on the challenges of being away from home and other parts of the truck driver job.

“There’s still good money in it, but who wants to be away from home two to three weeks at a time. But here we have a good system in place to get drivers home more often,” he says. “We find the more we can get them home, it boosts morale. We have some guys who are home every night, some guys who are home every weekend, but there are still some who don’t want to come home and keep driving.”

The thirteen-year veteran of the industry has seen a lot of things while on the job in the transportation industry.

“I learn something new in this industry every day. There’s always different obstacles to overcome. You can come in here every single day and have everything complete one day only to come in the next morning and everything you touched yesterday, you have to redo,” he says. “Appointments are missed and a lot of things are out of your control. Traffic and weather play a huge part in that.  A lot of things just happen that change everything you had planned for the week.”

With a twenty-five-truck fleet as well as a brokerage with another twenty-five trucks, Shurden and his crew have mechanics on board to maintain the fleet.

“We are constantly trying to put people to work in the Delta,” he says. “We get out and work and hustle and make a little money. Our trucks run all over the lower forty-eight states and we haul just about anything and everything from beverages to apparel to tractors and tons of non-hazard agricultural products like feed and fertilizer.”

The trucking and transportation industry is in dire need of help from state and federal governments to firm up infrastructure along with developing more technically savvy drivers in order to continue keeping goods and materials in route and on time