Rhode Island trucking firms test for weak links in the supply chain

Posted 10/19/21

Ryan Roche opened the DL Terminals office in Cranston at 3:30 a.m. Friday to schedule that day's deliveries. He was hoping to leave by 5 o'clock that afternoon knowing that he would be back by 4 a.m. on Saturday. That didn't happen ...

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Rhode Island trucking firms test for weak links in the supply chain


Ryan Roche opened the DL Terminals office in Cranston at 3:30 a.m. Friday to schedule that day’s deliveries. He was hoping to leave by 5 o’clock that afternoon knowing that he would be back by 4 a.m. on Saturday. That didn’t happen.

DL Terminals is one link in the chain of companies – some only with one truck, some with fleets as large as that operated by UPS – that feed the supply chain, from supermarkets to auto supplies.

Pre-pandemic, Roche was putting in 55-hour weeks. Now it’s 70 to 75 hours.

The same is true with other trucking companies as they try to deliver products that are in demand while wondering how they are going to deal with the thousands of containers waiting for transport, not to mention freighters waiting to be offloaded at major ports on the east and west coasts.

Chris Maxwell, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Trucking Association, hasn’t seen the issues facing the industry on this scale since he took the job 10 years ago. Demand for trucks, truck drivers and equipment is outstripping supply.

He said in an interview Friday that in the past year, 55,000 truck drivers left the industry nationwide. Overall, he estimated there are 3.5 million to 4 million drivers.

“We’re in a crisis of astronomical proportions. There’s a mass exodus [of drivers],” he said.

While on a percentage basis 55,000 isn’t a huge number – less than 2 percent – Maxwell fears unless the industry takes steps to replenish the ranks, the shortages seen today along with breakdowns in the supply chain will only get worse. Also, as the competition for drivers heats up, he’s concerned some companies could relax requirements on drivers. Currently the industry is 60,000 to 100,000 drivers shy of what’s needed, he said.

“The [driver] supply chain is not a good formula for safety on roads,” he said.

What’s causing driver shortages

Maxwell said three factors are contributing to the shortage of drivers – those who “walk out” because of mounting regulations and the hours, because of health reasons, and retirement.

Maxwell said drivers are required not to exceed 14 hours on duty and 11 hours of driving. Once they reach those thresholds, they are to have 10 hours off. Roadside inspections, he said, can result in lost pay for drivers who are paid by the job.

Furthermore, he sees strict driver testing requirements as conflicting with an overall greater acceptance of marijuana use across the nation.

“As we legalize marijuana, it doesn’t correlate with the industry,” he said.

Maxwell doesn’t advocate relaxing marijuana restrictions on drivers, but notes they are a deterrent in attracting drivers. However, he does advocate lowering the minimum age requirement for interstate operation of commercial motor vehicles, which is currently 21 years old. As the Safe Drive Act in the U.S. House of Representatives proposes, he endorses lowering the minimum to 18 for applicants who have a minimum of 400 hours of training under the supervision of an experienced driver and satisfy 11 benchmarks.

To bring it home, Maxwell talks of driving a shiny new truck, parking it in front of Central High School and telling seniors they could make $80,000 driving it. He said kids are interested until they hear they must wait until they’re 21.

“We can’t afford to lose anyone,” Roche said of his drivers. He is operating nine straight and five trailer trucks from the Cranston terminal, mostly in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Mark Greene, who runs Westwood Cartage from the same Cranston location, said the company is “taking one day at a time. Like everyone else, we can’t find enough drivers.”

Westwood has 50 drivers. Greene said they could use another five to 10. “The company’s greatest asset right now is its drivers.”

Greene said while the demand for drivers presents problems, “It’s nice that the pendulum is kind of swinging back [to the driver].” He is seeing increased driver wages, yet at the same time reluctance on the part of some drivers who made more on unemployment benefits or are simply looking for other forms of work.

Roche said he has been fortunate not to lose drivers, and to retain them he pays close attention to wages and benefits. He and his father kept all their drivers on the payroll during the shutdown and refused to lay off workers who said they could make more on unemployment benefits. It was especially bleak for a four- to six-week period immediately following the shutdown, and then it started to pick up. He said the company qualified for forgiveness of both Payroll Protection Program loans it received, which has helped.

Depending on what’s expected of them – some drivers break down what they are delivering while others simply roll off the freight carried – wages can range from $25 to $38 an hour, Roche said.

Truck companies facing shortages, too

He called the volume of freight “incredible,” although some customers are getting deliveries of only a single pallet when they usually got six or seven. Because there’s no inventory of product, companies are taking what they can get.

“We’re having a hard time keeping up. [Freight] comes in waves. It’s crazy. This is the busiest it’s been in years and years.”

DL provides “drop trailers” to some customers. When filled and ready for delivery, the company sends over a tractor to make the pickup.

Roche is also feeling the pinch from the kinks in the supply chain. He said there is a shortage of equipment and parts. He’s had problems getting electric powered hand lifts and he won’t get delivery on a new truck recently ordered until next September. Fearing the situation won’t improve, the company signed lease agreements this week for trucks to be delivered in 2023.

Meanwhile, to his dismay and that of his customers, fuel costs continue to climb. On Friday, he was paying $3.29 a gallon for diesel compared to $3.12 the week before. He said the fuel surcharge passed along to the customer is now 28 percent as compared to 11 percent earlier in the year.

Might driverless trucks address the shortage of drivers someday?

Maxwell thinks not. He sees technology as changing the role of the driver, but because of custody and security reasons, “you’re still going to have drivers behind the wheel.”

Greene agrees. He sees driver-less trucks on long hauls, but with drivers when it comes to making deliveries.

supplies, shipping, trucking


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