June 20, 2024

Workforce shortage remains key concern for transportation sector

PEORIA, Ill. — The shortage of truck drivers eased slightly across the nation last year compared to 2021.

But the workforce shortage remains a top concern of the transportation sector for 2023, according to a panel of industry experts at the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association annual convention in Peoria.

“From the things we see in 2023, the focus has to be on the workforce. It’s the No. 1 thing we’re hearing in the sector,” said Kirby Wagner, GROWMARK associate manager of government relations.

“We have a tight supply chain on top of that,” he noted. “It will continue.”

The American Trucking Associations estimates the United States was short about 78,000 truck drivers last year, down from a high of 80,000 in 2021.

“We saw a lot of retirements in the trucking industry and a lot of overworked drivers,” Wagner said.

Some drivers returned to the industry and freight demand declined slightly in recent months, which eased some of the strain.

ATA’s truck tonnage index decreased 2.5% in November after slipping 1.2% in October. The decrease reflects a slowing goods economy with housing-related freight particularly weak, ATA reported.

Looking ahead, Wagner said GROWMARK continues to work with new truck drivers to get them through an expanded training and regulatory environment.

Meanwhile, IFCA is pursuing an extension of restricted Class B licenses to allow the transport of up to 3,000 pounds of all farm products, and not just liquid fertilizer, to help expand the pool of drivers in the ag industry, said KJ Johnson, IFCA president.

“There’ll be more collaboration across all sectors to make sure farmers get all the products they need on time,” Wagner said.

Elsewhere, workforce constraints played a big role in efficiency concerns for the railroad industry in the past year, according to Peter Skosey, executive director, state government affairs for BNSF Railway.

“Our workforce is strained,” said Skosey, who hopes to see new hires after the industry narrowly avoided a labor strike. “We just finished a difficult round of labor negotiations. The December agreement gives workers a 24% pay increase.”

Issues about paid sick leave for workers was a key sticking point in the railroad negotiations, but often misunderstood outside the industry, according to the BNSF representative.

“We don’t have paid sick leave, but we have time off. The average employee gets 27 to 33 days off a year,” Skosey said. “And we do have long-term sick leave.”

With a new labor agreement in place, Skosey looks for rail service disruptions to ease this year. The company offers sign-on bonuses as high as $25,000 for conductors and engineers.

“I think we’ll still see some ripple effects (from recent service disruptions), but our network is back to fluidity,” he said.

BNSF also spends more than $3 billion annually to maintain its network.

“We are concerned about efficiency, but we also have the luxury of investing in infrastructure,” Skosey said. “We’ve been able to decrease rail service disruptions by 30% the last 10 years.

“Further opportunities for technological upgrades in the railroad industry and operational improvements will also reduce service disruptions.”

This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association.