To New Hampshire truckers, driver shortage is only part of the shipping problem

By: - November 11, 2021 6:07 am
Trucks on the interstate

While years ago drivers might charge $1 or $2 a mile, the shortage of trucks on the road today means they can charge upward of $5 a mile in certain circumstances. (Mario Tama | Getty Images)

To find anything close to America’s 2021 shipping industry woes, Bob Freed has to reach back to 9/11.

In 34 years in the trucking business, that was the only other period Freed can remember when transportation companies saw a national slowdown of freight. But that lull, sparked by acute uncertainty around subsequent attacks, lasted only about a month, Freed recalls. Today’s supply chain slowdown will soon be entering its third year.

Freed, the executive vice president of Milford-based Tech Transport Inc., said 9/11 “was just a sudden thing, you know. Planes are out of the sky, everybody shut down.”

“But by the end of the month, as horrible as it was, things were starting to creep back up,” he said. “This is just a year of people who were in their houses. It’s like a bad sci-fi movie.”

In New Hampshire, like everywhere, trucking companies are seeing the effects of twin crises: the shipping backlog and the driver shortage. The first is allowing drivers and companies to charge record-high rates for each shipping contract. But the second is making those contracts hard to take on in the first place. 

Tech Transport has had its highest billing year in its history. While years ago drivers might charge $1 or $2 a mile, the shortage of trucks on the road today means they can charge upward of $5 a mile in certain circumstances, Freed said. 

By one metric, that’s good news for Freed’s company. Tech Transport doesn’t hire drivers; it arranges shipping contracts for suppliers and locates drivers to fill the job, “sort of like a travel agent,” Freed said. Higher road rates mean more expensive contracts. 

But the record prices are not translating to record profits.

“It’s not that we’re making more money,” he said. “We have to pay the trucks more. But we bill more because of inflationary pressure.” 

State officials have recognized the problem. From 2019 to July 2021, the state lost 3,148 drivers, bringing the total down to 29,362, according to New Hampshire Department of Safety Commissioner Robert Quinn. That shortage is hitting a range of industries in the state, from hazardous materials transports to heating oil and propane delivery, Quinn noted in a memo to the state’s Executive Council. 

In a pair of votes last month, the council approved two contracts that would use federal funding to try to increase employment. The state will spend $3.8 million through the end of 2024 to create training centers for the commercial driver’s license, allowing the Division of Motor Vehicles to set up four more testing sites across the state, in Bethlehem, Epping, Hillsborough, and Lebanon. Those would add to the existing sites in Concord, Durham, Lebanon, Nashua, and Twin Mountain. 

The money will also allow the state to double the number of licensing examiners, bringing the state total from four to eight.

To entice new drivers to enter the profession, the council also approved a $500,000 contract for a marketing campaign via TV and radio ads, social media posts, and training videos. That money will be available until June 2023.

To Dan Morico, the business development manager at Pembroke-based Hartley Transportation LLC, the investments could make a dent. 

“Probably the biggest problem is finding drivers,” he said. Quality drivers – the ones who excel at communication, vehicle maintenance, and safety – are especially hard to locate, he said. 

And people who are interested in driving face additional delays, Morico said. In the first year of the pandemic, many CDL instruction schools and testing centers shut down or limited operations. The additional testing centers could help fix that bottleneck, Morico said.  

Still, both Morico and Freed say expediting the hiring pipeline solves only part of the equation that’s driving the shipping delays. Freight transportation slowed down as soon as the pandemic began, with many warehouses partially shutting down and non-essential industries grinding to a halt. Drivers waited at home for work or left the profession entirely. 

A year and a half later, with demand picking up again, the workforce gaps haven’t closed, and those drivers who are still operating have more contracts than they can pick up. That leaves suppliers with two choices, Morico says: They can accept slower shipments, or they can pay higher rates to ship the goods on time. 

The higher price tags for immediate shipping can be jolting. “It’s a sticker shock,” Morico said. Some sellers decide to wait it out, hoping rates will drop down the line. Others pay the premium. 

Either way, the compounding effect raises prices, and with them the risk of inflation. 

Regional issues

In New England, shipping rates can rise as a result of geography. Because the region produces and manufactures less than other areas of the country, truck drivers bringing goods into New Hampshire have fewer opportunities for “backhauls” – contracts that let them take goods in both directions. That means the same seller must often pay a per-mile fee for the driver to take the goods out and for the trip back with an empty trailer. 

“That’s always typically been the situation,” Freed said. “It’s just gotten much worse.” The rates for the drive back, he says, have spiked. 

And the high prices and delays are sometimes out of truck drivers’ hands entirely. Most of the backup, Freed and Morico say, is happening at the country’s western ports. Shipments have stalled at American ports, with more containers than truck drivers can handle.

“Throughout the country, California is by far the worst,” Morico said. He and Freed said the slowdown could last well into 2022 if not longer. 

Despite the complexity of the current moment, industry leaders and politicians are focused on the workforce question. 

“The trucks aren’t moving on the road if we don’t have enough drivers,” Gov. Chris Sununu said at a Nov. 3 press conference. “… That all really hinges on folks having their CDL license to have that flexibility to keep the supply chain moving.”

From Freed’s perspective, it’s a problem bigger than COVID-19. Just as with school bus drivers, the industry is facing an aging out of its workforce, he said.

“If you can pick up a hammer and do some other jobs that pay much more, and … you’re not on the road away from your family or whatever, that also takes away from the supply of drivers,” Freed said. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.