Buttigieg vows to recruit more truckers in visit to Savannah port

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks to the media during his visit to the Georgia Ports Authority's Megarail facility on Friday. Buttigieg's visit highlighted recent coordination with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Georgia Ports Authority to improved its cargo flow by increasing rail capacity and activating flexible "pop-up" container yards near manufacturing and distribution centers. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks to the media during his visit to the Georgia Ports Authority's Megarail facility on Friday. Buttigieg's visit highlighted recent coordination with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Georgia Ports Authority to improved its cargo flow by increasing rail capacity and activating flexible "pop-up" container yards near manufacturing and distribution centers. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

In a visit to the Port of Savannah Friday, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg promised to push initiatives that will ease two crucial bottlenecks in the supply chain: the shortage of truckers and the lack of capacity at the nation’s shipping terminals.

On the ground in Georgia for just a few hours, Buttigieg toured the facility with officials of the Georgia Ports Authority and the International Longshoremen’s Association, which represents many of the workers who unload ships and move cargo around the terminal.

“One of the reasons we are here is that we think that what the Georgia ports have done could be a model for other places around the country,” Buttigieg said during a press conference in Savannah.

His department has already given the Georgia Ports Authority financial help aimed at relieving some of the congestion and is planning to offer more from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, he said.

The department this fall provided $8 million to the authority to help with opening four inland ports — including the Hulsey Yard in Atlanta owned by CSX rail — that are being used to store and distribute containers that had been part of the congestion at the Port of Savannah.

Backlogs at the port have forced ships to wait to be unloaded, but the inland ports have made a difference, said Joel Wooten Jr., chair of the authority board.

At times in October, up to 31 ships were queued up in a line out into the harbor waiting, he said. “Today, that is six vessels. The Department of Transportation did a wonderful job.”

Much of the cargo is moved out of the terminal by rail, but sooner or later, most containers end up on a truck, and so the lack of enough truckers has been a significant part of the ongoing supply chain woes.

Thousands of truckers retire or quit each year, Buttigieg told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during a phone interview. “We have been working the issue all year and our focus is two-fold. We need to recruit more people and we need to retain more people.”

The department is looking for ways to entice more veterans into trucking, but also to add more women, he said. “We should not be leaving so many excellent drivers on the table. We want to make it easier for people who want a career in trucking to have that opportunity.”

Women drivers make up about 7% of truck drivers.

While some drivers make six figures, others struggle to get by.

So keeping truckers on the road means improving the way they are paid and treated, Buttigieg said. Drivers are experiencing long waits for loading or unloading.

“Drivers are not always being compensated for their time,” he said.

That could mean writing new regulations for the industry, but not necessarily, he said. “Some might require using tools we already have.”

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