Timber Industry Faces Shortage of Log Truckers

By October 14, 2019Community, News

From The Forestry Source, August 2019. © 2019, The Society of American Foresters

 

Timber Industry Faces Shortage of Log Truckers

 

By Steve Wilent

The first item listed in the Forest Resources Association’s June 27 Southcentral and Southeastern Regions Activity Report was startling: “It is estimated that the truck driver shortage is resulting in a 10% to 15% loss of logging production currently. Multiple industries compete for drivers, and good, reliable trucking is very expensive.”

Rick Meyer, Appalachian and southwide regions manager for the association, said that the production- loss figures are anecdotal, but very real.

“I would say that just about every logging or trucking contractor that I’ve talked with who has, say, five trucks or more, has had at least one of those trucks idled at one time or another over the past year due to the driver shortage,” Meyer said. “For the majority of our members all across the country, trucking challenges are their number one issue by far, both from the logging end and probably from the mill as well.”

The shortage of drivers in the US is affecting all industries that rely on trucking. A March 2, 2019, article in Fortune, “America’s Trucker

Shortage Is About to Hit Consumers Where It Hurts,” notes that US companies “are sounding the alarm that higher freight fees could be passed on to consumers of everything from Crest toothpaste to Arm & Hammer cat litter to My Little Pony figurines. And it’s all because transport companies can’t find drivers.”

In the forest-products industry, many drivers are nearing or even past retirement age, Meyer said, and there aren’t enough young drivers willing to fill their seats behind the wheel. Compounding the problem is the challenge for companies and drivers, especially new ones, in obtaining insurance.

“It’s a huge issue,” said Meyer. “Not only are the rates going up a lot, but companies are increasingly unwilling to take a risk on younger drivers—it’s getting hard to find insurable drivers. In some states, they are down to just a couple of insurance carriers that are willing to write policies for commercial vehicles.”

Dale Lemmons, owner of Signature Transport Inc., in Kelso, Washington, said that it is “very challenging” to find enough drivers to handle his company’s workload. The company owns nearly 60 trucks, most of which haul wood chips and other mill residues

“Our insurance company wants drivers to be at least 24 or 25 years old,” he said. “They will allow us to take 10 to 15 percent of our drivers straight out of truck-driving school… but only because we have proven that we will spend another six weeks doing additional training, so that they are ready to go out on their own and be safe drivers.”

Relatively low wages also are a factor. “When you have a driver shortage and competition across all industries for drivers, some industries can pay more than what the forest- products industry can pay drivers between the woods and the mill. That makes it hard for the forest-products industry to recruit and keep drivers,” Meyer said.

In addition, “Truck drivers are paid well, but not as well as in some of the other trades. The past few decades, [wages for truckers] have not really kept up, and that’s part of it, but it’s also the long hours, and often irregular hours. Traffic congestion is getting worse. Drivers have a hard time planning their work around their personal lives. It’s a lifestyle choice, and if people have other choices with better lifestyles, they’ll sometimes go that way,” Lemmons said.

Construction jobs are attractive alternatives, and Lemmons says finding new drivers early in the construction season is especially difficult.

Signature Transport pays its drivers $20 to $23 per hour. With overtime pay, Lemmons said, some of his drivers are making between $60,000 and $70,000 per year. Such salaries don’t go very far in the Interstate 5 corridor in Oregon and Washington, where the cost of living in the Portland and Seattle metro areas is among the highest in the nation.

Increasingly strict driver-health requirements and enforcement of regulations such as the hours-of-service requirements set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) also have had an impact.

“Say a driver is getting near their hours of service for a week, and there’s a slowdown at a mill or something else that causes a delay that might cause them to go over their number of hours. It used to be no big deal,” said Meyer. “These days, electronic logging [of drivers’ hours of service] doesn’t allow for flexibility in extenuating circumstances. I’ve heard that this has knocked some drivers off some of the longer hauls. Where a trucker might have been able to get two loads in a day, now maybe they only get one.”

FMCSA has proposed a new rule that ends the flexibility to the hours-of-service requirements; in June, it extended the comment period for the proposed rule to September 16.

Trucking in Maine

The Professional Logging Contractors of Maine is an association that represents nearly 200 contractors that account for about 80 percent of the wood harvested in the state. In March 2019, it released “Maine Logger and Log Trucker Employment Availability and Wage Analysis Report,” prepared on its behalf by the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine. It describes a shortage of both truckers and woodworkers:

Recent expansions announced at several mill facilities in Maine, in addition to the potential development of mass timber production facilities located in the state over the next several years, will continue to increase the demand for harvested wood fiber. The logging industry, which contracted following a slew of mill shutdowns in the state over the past decade and was impacted by the severe economic recession in 2008–2009, has been challenged in ramping up production and harvests due to workforce constraints that are intensifying despite rising demand for wood. In addition, the logging workforce is rapidly aging and large numbers of workers will soon be retiring and need replacement. Stagnant or negative population growth and an aging population across Maine, particularly in rural areas, greatly limits the potential pool of workers. Competition for workers across the state is intensifying and reaching crisis levels in many industries, including logging and other manufacturing and production oriented sectors of the economy.

Dana Doran, executive director of the association, said the use of the word crisis was appropriate.

“We have significant problems right now, not only in filling the vacancies that we have,” he said, “but looking at the forecast for wood utilization and new markets that are coming online. We’re not sure where we’re going to find the people to meet our future needs.”

As in the Pacific Northwest, one barrier to filling these vacancies is the relatively low wages paid to workers in logging and log trucking. Among the report’s findings:

  • The median hourly wage for truck drivers in Maine’s timber industry in 2017 was $15.23; 80 percent of drivers earned between $9.31 and $19.00 per hour.
  • Compared to numerous other industries, truck drivers in logging earn among the lowest wages. For example, the median hourly wage for drivers paid by companies such as

Walmart and other large merchants was $21.60 in 2017.

“That’s been a long-time, systemic problem in our industry,” said Doran. “There are people out there who are just not attracted to our industry because wages are lower than in like- skilled industries.”

According to Doran, some logging contractors are unable to have logs shipped to mills in a timely manner because demand for the product is outpacing contractor capacity.

“It’s a big problem, all the way up through the value chain,” he said. “We’re hearing of mills that are almost empty [of logs] on a consistent basis. When Friday rolls around, they’ve processed all of the logs they have, and come Monday, their log yards are nearly empty.”

Short of filling vacancies within the industry, increasing the efficiency of log transportation and handling may help ease the impact of the driver shortage.

“There are creative opportunities to reduce bottlenecks within mills, so wait times aren’t as long. If a truck doesn’t have to sit idling for an hour or two or three, you can obviously increase your productivity,” Doran said.

Truck-weight limits are less of an issue in Maine than in many other states, Doran said. Since 2012, Maine has had a permanent exemption to federal weight limits that allow truckers to carry up to 100,000 pounds— 20,000 pounds more than the general federal gross vehicle weight limit of 80,000 pounds. The 100,000-pound maximum also applies to state and local roads in Maine. In other states, log truckers with heavy loads often must avoid interstate highways and use state and local roads, which can be more dangerous; trucks also often must travel at lower speeds.

The Inland West

Vincent P. Corrao, CF, ACF, tells a similar story of driver shortages. He is president of Northwest Management Inc., a Moscow, Idaho–based company that handles 30 to 50 timber sales per year, mostly on private lands in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana.

“During peak times, certain mills are saying that they’re having trouble getting all of their logs,” Corrao said. “For the most part, the guys who pay the most are getting the trucks. In some cases they’re overpaying, and maybe that is sustainable and [indicates] a strong lumber market.”

That could result in increases in already high trucking costs. In the not-so-distant past, trucking represented a relatively small portion of the cost of delivering a log to a mill, Corrao said.

“Consequently, that cost was passed off to the logging contractor, who would handle the trucking. Trucking costs today are, if not one of the highest costs of getting a log to a mill, at least comparable to logging costs in many cases,” he said. “Logging operations have become more efficient over the last 25 to 30 years, whereas trucking costs have continued to escalate. There is now greater interest in assuming more control of those costs.”

One means of controlling trucking costs, said Corrao, is through the use of central-dispatch trucking. Northwest Management’s subsidiary, Northwest Timber Logistics (NWT) advocates central-dispatch trucking. Instead of working for a specific logger, truckers are assigned by NWT’s

transportation-management system to the most efficient routes between logging operations and mills in the region. This system was described in “Logistics: Managing the Flow of Logs to Mills with Trimble’s WSX,” The Forestry Source, October 2016. WSX is a log- supply planning and dispatch system that is part of Trimble Navigation’s Connected Forest suite of products.

Central-dispatch trucking has had limited success, Corrao said, because many loggers and truckers are reluctant to give up their traditional ways of working. However, with the central-dispatch system “you can increase your capacity by 25 or 30 percent, so you would need that much less trucking because your fleet would be utilized more efficiently,” he said.

Overall, the timber industry in the inland West faces the same pressures being felt in other regions.

“Some [loggers and timber] companies are getting to the point where they’re looking at buying trucks and offering benefits to the drivers, so that they can have a sustainable trucking infrastructure, or somehow incentivizing independent drivers to come into the business,” said Corrao. “Maybe wages need to be increased; maybe hours need to be changed. But there just aren’t a lot of young people who want to drive trucks.”