Georgia truckers face long road catching up to rising demand for goods

Cockpit view: port and warehouse delays, worker and parts shortages

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Chad Roberts cranks his 550-horsepower diesel Freightliner truck in the pre-dawn darkness to hopefully pick up and deliver a 7,700-pound forklift.

Roberts and the equipment that he intends to transport are hot commodities in a stretched supply chain.

Forklifts are critical for warehouses to move everything from Christmas hams to computer chips that keep the economy humming. But they are in short supply.

So are truck drivers.

“I could put five drivers on the road tomorrow,” but can’t find good ones, says Roberts, owner of Loganville’s Old Glory Trucking, which has four trucks but employs just one other driver.

Credit: Christopher Quinn

Credit: Christopher Quinn

Keeping the trucks in working order is another challenge. Roberts recently shelled out $3,900 for 10 tires and then waited while they were stuck inside a container at Savannah’s backed-up port.

It’s not the first time the port has caused him grief. A few months ago, he drove there planning to pick up a decommissioned military tank. He waited four hours and then was told he’d have to wait another day. He gave up and returned home with an empty truck.

When Roberts arrives at an inland depot, he often waits longer than usual because the worker shortage has hit warehouses too. In a recent poll by the 150,000-member Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, drivers said they waste up to 20 hours a week waiting to load or unload.

Trucking is key to the supply chain, transporting 73% of all goods moving through the U.S., according to an industry estimate. But the chain starts as far away as a Chinese factory before reaching a Georgia home, with many stops in between. And many of the links along the chain are weak, triggering shortages and delays while driving up costs.

Surging demand for goods has further strained the supply chain as many Americans try to spend their way out of the pandemic blues. As of November, retail spending was 25% higher than January 2020 before COVID-19 hit, according to Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights. That has sparked worries if Christmas gifts will arrive on time.

The rapid growth of e-commerce also means more drivers are needed to deliver individual packages to residential doorsteps, in addition to bulk drop-offs at warehouses and stores.

Home delivery is “not a very efficient use of our resources and our drivers perhaps, but I think it’s going to continue,” said Jim Monkmeyer, head of transportation at DHL Supply Chain, a large logistics company.

Add it all up and it’s not surprising that when Americans finally get their hands on goods, they’re paying more. U.S. consumer prices rose 6.8% in November from the year before, a 39-year high. And there’s no sign demand — or inflation — will slacken anytime soon.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

’Help wanted’ sign for drivers

The three-week courses at Daly’s Truck Driving School in Duluth are packed through next March, in part thanks to the publicity about the national truck driver shortage and rising wages. The 1.8 million truck drivers across the U.S. earn about $49,000 a year on average, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says, though salaries can hit more than $100,000.

“That’s not bad,” compared to a college graduate’s prospects, says Rick Taylor, an instructor, as he watches student Cailen Carr back a 53-foot rig into a slot made of orange plastic cones on the six-acre practice lot.

The school trained 1,700 drivers in 2020 and expects to top that this year.

Carr, not long out of the Army, is well into the 150-hour training program. He was working in a food company warehouse near Gainesville when his employer gave him a chance to switch jobs.

“They just opened up a new driver training program because they are having trouble filling up driver slots,” says the 24-year-old, after angling a rig into the parallel parking slot without tipping a cone.

The American Trucking Associations estimates there is a current shortage of 80,000 drivers. Jason Miller, a logistics professor at Michigan State University, pegs the shortfall at about 12,000 to 20,000 drivers.

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It’s not a job for most people. The industry has done a poor job of recruiting women, who make up nearly half of the overall workforce but only about 7% of long-haul truckers. Meanwhile, the yearly turnover rate for long-haul drivers working for large companies is a stunning 90%, according to government data.

New drivers often don’t realize the financial and emotional costs. Being separated from family for weeks at a time. Eating, showering and sleeping at truck stops or on roadsides. Paying your own living expenses while away.

Muhammad El Aouad of Atlanta, a 24-year-old immigrant from Morocco, heard there was money to be made in trucking while working as a waiter. He paid about $5,000 for driving school and was hired quickly by a large carrier. He nearly walked away from the business three months later, realizing he was barely making more than his restaurant job after travel expenses.

But he had been told savvy owner operators could make more as independent drivers. He took the plunge, buying his own truck last year and bidding on loads to carry.

“I started making six times what I was making,” he says. He plans to buy a second truck and hire a driver for it.

Still, Miller estimates it could take until the fall of 2022 before the driver gap closes.

Lots of waiting — and empty trucks

Dennis Cummings sits in one of six brown fake leather lounge chairs, waiting for one of 14 truck stop shower rooms to empty of other drivers.

He drove 13 hours from upstate New York before overnighting in the sleeper of his truck cab at the Travel Centers of America truck stop, off I-85 at Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. He is ready to freshen up — and then wait again before he picks up his return load at a warehouse.

He says his waits at warehouses have gotten longer. Mitch Bond, a Cochran, Georgia driver sitting nearby, says he recently waited more than 20 hours to get his refrigerated trailer unloaded.

That’s a major problem for truckers. Federal regulations limit their driving and on-duty hours for safety reasons, and mandate 10 hours of break when they hit the limit.

Credit: Christopher Quinn

Credit: Christopher Quinn

At least Cummings and Bond have their trucks parked outside and ready to hit the road — much less of a given these days.

“You can’t get a truck worked on. You can’t get parts. I had one truck sit for three weeks,” says Cummings, who runs a seven-rig operation.

Even when a truck is plying freeways, it can be hard to fill. Cummings was in metro Atlanta on a weekly southern run to drop off 40,000 pounds of frozen bread loaves. He was hoping to pack his 53-foot refrigerated trailer for the run back with chicken.

But worker shortages and pandemic stoppages have strained Georgia’s $2.4 billion chicken-processing industry. On his previous four return trips he ended up carrying just four pallets each time, wasting most of the space in his trailer.

Snarled Savannah port exacts toll

The bottlenecks in Georgia often start at the Savannah port.

More than 20 ships have been backed up at times in recent months waiting to unload. The factories and ports in Asia and elsewhere that the U.S. depends on for goods have more capacity to ship than American ports can unload, said Glenn Jones, a vice president with logistics company Blume Global.

There’s so much competition to get goods into the U.S. that shipping costs have skyrocketed. The price of shipping a container across the Pacific has gone from about $2,000 to more than $10,000, and those costs get passed on, he said.

The full containers are stacked up in the port yard. That leads to delays in loading ― and extra charges for storage — as containers are reshuffled to keep the ones scheduled for loading at the top. The problems are compounded when some containers have to be unloaded and reloaded into smaller containers, taking more time, according to Jones.

There’s also a shortage of chassis that are used to move shipping containers. The chassis sit at the port or warehouses waiting to be unloaded and cost about $30 a day to rent, said George Wilcox, who runs Able Trucking in Savannah. When he can’t unload them for days, he passes those charges onto customers.

And the worker shortage is a problem at every level, from ports to warehouses and rail yards. Georgia’s unemployment rate — which counts those working or seeking work — is at a record low. But there are still fewer people working than before the pandemic, some staying home to care for family or hold out for higher pay.

“Everyone is having trouble finding decent people to hire,” said Bill Crow, president of the Southeastern Warehouse Association.

A kingdom for a forklift

Attached to Roberts’ dashboard is an iPad that lights his face bluish white in the darkened cab as he types an address to pick up a Toyota forklift.

John Gerhardt, who runs Ogden Forklifts supplying companies in Atlanta and Savannah, said he has more than 1,000 orders outstanding because of the supply chain slowdown.

“A lot of machines come from overseas, and parts come from overseas,” Gerhardt said. “And that is all out on the water somewhere.”

It used to take 12 to 16 weeks to get a new one after ordering it for a customer. Now it’s 40 weeks or more because of factory shutdowns and then surging demand as the U.S. economy reopened.

Credit: Christopher Quinn

Credit: Christopher Quinn

Roberts, of Old Glory Trucking, taps his start time into the electronic federal safety log that tracks his hours worked, limiting how long he can be on the road.

Then he shifts the 18-wheeler into first gear and rolls from the dirt parking lot next to his home north of Commerce to the nearest exit onto I-85 toward Atlanta. He works his way through the 10 gears as he joins the southbound flow, saying he always starts early to avoid rush-hour jams.

He arrives at a warehouse in Gwinnett County a little after 7 a.m. and waits only a few minutes for a worker to show up. Roberts volunteers to drive the forklift onto his flatbed trailer and has the vehicle strapped down in minutes before rolling out of the parking lot with a blast of diesel fumes.

A little more than an hour later, he exits off I-985 in Buford and rolls slowly through a light industrial district to an auto parts warehouse. He maneuvers the long trailer to a loading dock and pulls on leather gloves to unstrap the forklift. Fifteen minutes later, he is unloading it.

It’s a good day so far. But momentum and demand for goods are building toward Christmas.

U.S. personal consumption expenditures were $14.78 billion in February of 2020 just before effects of the pandemic hit, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. They fell dramatically in March but began rebounding in April of last year, as Americans locked down at home began spending on new furniture and TVs, food to cook and even new houses or additions. Spending has continued climbing, reaching $16.07 billion for the month of September 2021.

Not long ago, Roberts was making a delivery and one of his drivers was sitting in the passenger seat. As Roberts was trying to negotiate an intersection, a frustrated car driver put down the car window and voiced displeasure at sharing roads with big rigs, ending with, “I hate trucks.”

Roberts says his partner leaned out the truck’s window and shot back, “Well then stop buying (expletive).”