August 2015 | Commentary | Viewpoint

Driver Shortage Threatens to Slow Intermodal Growth

Tags: Trucking, Legislation, Public Policy, and Regulations, Ports, Rail, Transportation, Intermodal

Dave Manning is President, TCW, 615-780-3213

The shortage of qualified drivers threatens the intermodal industry's continued growth. The challenge for intermodal is not only hiring enough professional drivers, but also retaining them. For many transportation companies, attracting and retaining drivers are the biggest challenges.

The extreme number of multi-hour delays along the intermodal chain, combined with the impersonal treatment drivers receive at some facilities, make intermodal undesirable for drivers. This problem occurs at ports, rails, and customer docks, and improving turn times will take a coordinated effort.

Delays also result from the sometimes poor quality of intermodal equipment tendered. The amount of time drivers spend roadside waiting for a chassis tire to be repaired is inexcusable. Most equipment providers agree the safest and least costly equipment to maintain has radial tires and LED lights. But the intermodal industry continues to run tube-type, bias-ply tires on the chassis, and the progress toward upgrading the fleet is unsatisfactory. In the interim, drivers are fleeing to other segments where they can count on the equipment.

To further complicate matters, the current Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Hours-of-Service regulations restrict drivers to 11 hours of driving in a 14-consecutive-hour day. The time a driver spends waiting reduces the time available to move freight. For an immediate productivity gain, we need to work together to minimize driver delays.

Tough Competition

These unnecessary delays discourage drivers from choosing intermodal. The nation will need to add 100,000 drivers per year for the next 10 years, according to American Trucking Associations estimates. And only one-third of the demand for drivers stems from business growth; two-thirds of the need comes from retirements and exiting drivers.

There will continue to be strong competition from all segments of trucking for drivers. And unless we act, the intermodal industry will feel the driver shortage most.

Another barrier is the need to legislate a proper definition for independent contractors because the intermodal industry is primarily powered by independent contractors. Numerous states are threatening the model by reclassifying independent contractors as company drivers. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires motor carriers to exercise a certain degree of control over its drivers, yet the DOT requirements conflict with the degree of control threshold states use to determine company driver vs. contractor. A set definition will help prevent a significant portion of the intermodal driver base from being eliminated.

The driver shortage is a key issue impacting the intermodal industry and will be a discussion topic at the 2015 Intermodal EXPO in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. If every segment of our industry recognizes the value and importance of our professional drivers, and makes the adjustments needed to eliminate intermodal's negatives, we can increase the industry's attractiveness and successfully compete for drivers.

The intermodal industry is resilient and has overcome many challenges. The driver shortage is just one more hurdle to jump if intermodal is going to continue to grow.


Dave Manning is president of TCW and a board member of the Intermodal Association of North America, which will host Intermodal EXPO 2015, Sept. 20-22 in Ft. Lauderdale.