Three top transportation executives said Monday that they expect a high-intensity peak shipping season marked by the ongoing shortage of qualified commercial truck drivers and a pandemic that won’t disappear any time soon.
The peak will be “bigger, faster, will come quicker and stay longer,” said Greg Ritter, chief customer officer of transport and logistics giant XPO Logistics Inc. (NYSE:XPO). Appearing on a panel at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals’ EDGE 2020 virtual conference, Ritter said that while Greenwich, Connecticut-based XPO is close to peak readiness, many of its customers are already there.
Derek Leathers, vice chairman, president and CEO of Omaha, Nebraska-based truckload and logistics company Werner Enterprises Inc., (NASDAQ:WERN) said that peak capacity will be tight this year. Another issue, Leathers said, is that some of Werner’s customers are having a tougher time than usual securing products because the pandemic has disrupted many of their traditional channels of supply.
The pandemic has accelerated the long-running problem of driver availability, said Eric Fuller, president and CEO of truckload carrier U.S. Xpress Enterprises Inc. (NYSE:USX). Fuller warned that supply tightness will extend well beyond peak season. “The driver situation is getting worse,” he said. “It will be a lot more difficult and it won’t get much better” for the foreseeable future.
Two driver-related regulations confronting truckers are the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s revised hours-of-service (HOS) rules that, barring a successful legal challenge, will go into effect September 29, and the agency’s proposal mandating the testing of hair follicle samples to determine possible substance abuse by drivers.
Leathers said he supports the revised HOS rules because they will give drivers more flexibility in their workday without unfairly penalizing them or compromising highway safety. The panelists endorsed the hair follicle testing proposal as a strong safety measure because hair testing detects marijuana use further back in time than a urine sample. However, one of the proposal’s unintended consequences is that it might disqualify driver applicants who otherwise may have passed a urinalysis because of the relatively short amount of time that illegal substances remain in a human’s system before it gets passed as urine.
The three executives spoke highly of leading-edge technologies such as autonomous vehicles but emphasized that automation will never be a substitute for the skills of a qualified commercial driver.
None of the executives expect a return to normalcy until a COVID vaccine is developed, approved and widely distributed. Fuller said that certain parts of the trucker’s business will never return to the pre-COVID-19 days. For example, U.S. Xpress is exploring how many employees currently working from home have jobs that will allow them to stay at home permanently. Before the pandemic, no one at the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based carrier regularly worked from home, he said.
Ritter of XPO said the company’s customer relationships have been strengthened because the pandemic has fostered more collaboration and understanding of the shared sacrifices that everyone has made. XPO’s customer alliances are “deeper” than they were six months ago, he said.