While trucking activity is strong in the U.S., there are lingering threats like the acute driver shortage and talk of the U.S. pulling out of NAFTA, says ATA chief economist Bob Costello.
“NAFTA trade via truck supports over 46,000 jobs in our industry, including nearly 31,000 truck driver jobs,” he observed during a keynote address to Omnitracs’ fourth-annual Outlook conference. “NAFTA is critical to trucking.”
As reported by Today’s Trucking, Costello said that although president Trump’s threats to scrap the trade deal could be a negotiating tactic, if he follows through, tariffs would rise, and cross-border goods would cost more.
The best case scenario would be a pause in negotiations after an upcoming round of trade talks in Mexico, and maybe another quick one before Mexican elections, he said. “Pay attention to the media after this round. I think it will tell you a lot.”
The good news is the U.S. trucking industry continues to benefit from a thriving economy – particularly against a backdrop of rising consumer activity, construction, and factory output, he said.
But the driver shortage continues to be a challenge.
From Today’s Trucking:
The natural response has been to boost pay, and wages and salaries for U.S. drivers have grown about 3% over the past year. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that drivers are taking home more pay. Tractors that once traveled 125,000 miles a year can struggle to hit 100,000 miles in the current operating environment. The average dry van shipment traveled 796 miles in 2000, but 527 miles last year, Costello explained, citing changes in the supply chain.
Look no further than e-commerce for one of the most significant reasons why. Since 2000, e-commerce sales for non-store retailers are up 246%, while brick and mortar operations have seen their online sales rise 78% — reaching 16% of sales overall. These goods, however, carry promises of two-day deliveries, and that means retailers have needed to hold more inventory and establish more distribution centers.
The way these shippers effectively package freight is also changing the number of truckloads that are required. “Shippers are now shipping less air,” he said. “They’ve figured out packaging exactly.” Producers of goods like laundry detergent are finding way to remove water from their goods, and it isn’t the only way transformed products are making a difference. Trailers that once held 100 big screen TVs can now move hundreds of flat screens, for example.
“Our growth potential is not as high as it once was, at least in the number of loads,” he said.
Finding people to sit behind a steering wheel for any of the fleets remains an intensifying challenge.
“At current trends we could end up at 174,000 short by 2026. But you know what? I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Costello predicted, noting how wages would push higher and attract more people. “It has been, and it should, and it will continue to do that. And it must.”
The economist also had a message for shippers who are worried about available capacity. They have the means to create it.
“Stop making the drivers wait,” he said, referring to delays that will be clearly identified through mandated ELDs. “The smart ones are trying to figure that out.”
Full story here.