Morgan Stanley
  • Now, What's Next? Podcast
  • Jan 5, 2022

Jobs Go Begging on the Open Road

Transcript

Christopher Johns:

I wish people were more aware that those insignificant items that are on your shelf, there's someone who's sacrificed so much to get that jar of Marmite. Oh, I don't know if you have Marmite in Canada, I'm sorry.

Sonari Glinton:

Whether it's a jar of Marmite, a bunch of bananas or pharmaceuticals, Christopher Johns knows exactly what it takes to get us our goods.

Christopher Johns:

We're always up against it. Do you know, it's been so long since I remember getting to a destination early ahead of time. It just doesn't really happen anymore. You can be on time, but there's not enough of us.

Sonari Glinton:

The us Christopher's referring to are truck drivers, drivers who are right now in very short supply pretty much everywhere. In the United Kingdom, they've even called in the military to drive fuel trucks to keep gas stations running. Christopher has been driving in the UK and Europe for 15 years and the shortage is really no surprise to him. It's about more than resignations, early retirements and not enough new recruits. There are bigger issues that need to be solved in the industry, and they only got worse during the pandemic. But more significantly, the shortage of drivers is part of a huge labor crisis, a labor crisis that's making all the supply chain problems we've already talked about in the series much, much worse. So, what's going on and how is it going to get better?

Sonari Glinton:

I'm Sonari Clinton and on this episode of Now, What's Next, an original podcast from Morgan Stanley, truck drivers, labor shortages, and how the workforce of tomorrow is being shaped by the problems we're facing today.

Christopher Johns:

On paper that looked like quite an easy journey, but it was tight in the end.

Sonari Glinton:

It's evening and Christopher Johns is at the New Haven truck Depot in England.

Christopher Johns:

So I've used all 10 of my driving hours for the day near enough. So that's 11 hours working time roughly. By the time I get home, my kids will probably be asleep or in bed. So I don't really get much time with them, which really, really sucks. Fingers crossed, I might get to see them tomorrow night.

Sonari Glinton:

Sometimes Christopher is gone a day, sometimes a few days, but usually he's on the road a week or more at a time. The time away from his family is one of the downsides of truck driving and one of the reasons that the industry is in crisis right now. But at one point, that alone time on the road was a part of the appeal of truck driving. In the late '70s and the early '80s in American culture, truck driving was awesome. Anyone remember the CB radio craze? I mean, major movies with major movie stars were about long haul trucking. Every Which Way but Loose with Clint Eastwood. Burt Reynolds starred in Smokey and the Bandit about an outlaw trucker. It was the number two movie when it came out. The number one movie that year was Star Wars. Chris, like me, remember those trucker movies fondly.

Christopher Johns:

Convoy was a pretty great one. I think the way that particularly America portrayed truck driving was just it was quite this romantic idea. It was that kind of sense of freedom. You get to see these incredible sites and views. Yeah, that was one of the biggest draws probably, seeing the world.

Sonari Glinton:

You know what? Convoy was an excellent movie, but seeing the world freedom rambling, the call of the open roads, well, that's a cliche because it's so true. Christopher heard the call as a young single man who needed a break from studying graphic design and the idea of being alone on the road for long hours, well, it appealed to him.

Christopher Johns:

I thought I would be quite good at that. Quite naively I assumed that being on my own I'd be the best company. Me and my thoughts, in hindsight that was mentally a lot tougher than I had been prepared for.

Sonari Glinton:

A lot of it has been a lot tougher than Christopher was prepared for. For one thing, when he's not driving, he's got to eat, he's got to sleep and he's got to wash up. Sometimes that means getting really creative with his camping gear.

Christopher Johns:

I have a solar shower. I didn't realize how rubbish it would be because of course by the time I park up, there's not a lot of sun left. So it's always just a cold shower from a bag.

Sonari Glinton:

The brother is not exactly selling life on the road. When Christopher is fed and clean, he folds down the bed in the sleeper cab. It's in a big enough space that he can stand up. And yet...

Christopher Johns:

I'm always pretty desperate to get out of the cab. I always, if I'm able to get in a truck park or a secure parking, then I able to leave my truck under security so I can then go and jog. That's enormous relief just that freedom just to jog, run off somewhere, get lost quite a bit actually.

Sonari Glinton:

Now, the running hasn't been just for his mental health. Snacking on the job is a serious health hazard.

Christopher Johns:

So much self-control is needed because you are sitting on your bum for 10 hours a day. It's really punishing. I have friends of mine who are so overweight and they have serious diabetes and they have trouble getting in and out of their own cabs.

Sonari Glinton:

Being on your own for those long stretches, that doesn't help. Christopher finds some comfort though in singing along with his music, well, until his voice hurts, and listening to the podcast, you're welcome. And sure, he can talk to his wife and three kids over a screen, but that sometimes makes it harder.

Christopher Johns:

It just shows you where you are not. It's like a window into where you want to be, but you can't. My time is so much more precious than it was before. And time is everything in this job. It's the one thing that costs the most because you give up, sacrifice important moments like my little girl's first steps and things that you... Yeah, things that you regret. They want things done faster and faster and I think it's the victims of that day and age where people click a button and it's on your doorstep and it's a fight. It's a real fight to get there in time.

Sonari Glinton:

Not only are there not enough drivers, but traffic is worse. The weather and road conditions more unpredictable and the surge in online shopping has added real pressure. Plus, there's often a lot of waiting around to be loaded or unloaded, which in the UK and Europe only got worse after Brexit. This job requires a lot of patience, but it also requires a lot of skill, incredible spatial awareness, problem solving skills. To put it bluntly, it's an important job. It's an essential job even. And Christopher doesn't think that the industry gives the drivers the respect, the growth opportunities or the compensation that they deserve.

Christopher Johns:

It's sad and they're not going to attract any young drivers. And it is a young single person's career really. We're running out of drivers and we are going to run out of so much more. It needs quite a huge overhaul.

Sonari Glinton:

You could argue it already has. Despite all the challenges, Christopher doesn't see himself leaving the job anytime soon.

Christopher Johns:

I get frustrated at myself really because I went into this career eyes wide open. So it's the decision I made, but I feel like it was a selfish decision on my part. But this is the cards I've been dealt with and this is what I've become quite good at. So I have to play my deck. This is what it is.

Sonari Glinton:

Truckers and big rigs have been a part of Kendra Hems life for almost as far back as she can remember.

Kendra Hems:

We'd get ready for a road trip. My father would hook the CB up, put the big antenna on the top of the station wagon. And throughout the course of those trips, he'd be speaking with truck drivers and he'd find out were there cops ahead or road conditions or accidents.

Sonari Glinton:

All a while, young Kendra was in the backseat doing the arm pump to get the drivers to blow their horns. Now, as the president of the Trucking Association of New York, an organization that represents the trucking industry, Kendra spends a lot of time thinking about the kinds of issues Christopher talked about earlier and how to get more drivers out on the road again. So, take me from first memory as to how do you get into the trucking business.

Kendra Hems:

My stepfather, his family owned a trucking company. So around the age of eight, I was always around trucks and drivers and everything that went along with having a family owned business. Never initially intended to actually get into trucking, but ultimately I graduated college and was trying to save some money up to go on to graduate school.

Sonari Glinton:

Spoiler alert, life happens, she never went. Kendra's stepdad asked her to fill in when they were down a dispatcher, and well, she got hooked.

Kendra Hems:

I'm so glad that's how I started in the industry because it gave me such a profound respect for the job that our drivers do every single day. They want to know that there's somebody back there that really cares about what they're doing and making sure that they can get home at night. And no disrespect to men in the industry by any stretch but I think one of the reason why we're starting to see women succeed so much in management roles in the trucking industry is because they show that they care a little bit more openly, I think, than men often do.

Sonari Glinton:

As a dispatcher, Kendra got to hear firsthand about the problems that drivers face. And she knows that they're a part of the reason that the industry right now is struggling to hire them.

Kendra Hems:

Right now, it's the worst that it's ever been. We've increased over a three year period from 61,000 drivers short to now over 80,000 professional truck drivers.

Sonari Glinton:

You're short 80,000 professional truck drivers?

Kendra Hems:

We are, yes. We were already dealing with this shortage prior to the pandemic. And as with every industry across the US, we're struggling with getting individuals to come back.

Sonari Glinton:

You may have been hearing about the great resignation. Well, over the pandemic, record numbers of workers left their jobs. Now employers across many industries are struggling to fill those gaps and there are a whole host of reasons but I'm just going to list off a few. Mass layoffs at the start of the pandemic led to early retirements for some or finding new jobs for others. An aging baby boom population essentially left the workforce. And now, there are simply millions more available jobs than there are workers to take them. This hit the supply chain particularly hard, especially as our buying skyrocketed.

Kendra Hems:

There was a report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in July that indicated in transportation and warehousing as a whole, there's 490,000 job openings.

Sonari Glinton:

That's half a million jobs along the supply chain waiting to be filled.

Kendra Hems:

You're short with the crane operators that are trying to unload the ships at the port. You're short with warehousemen and forklift drivers to unload the trucks at the warehouse. We're short the drivers, we're short technicians to maintain the trucks. It's just every aspect of the supply chain right now is experiencing that shortage.

Sonari Glinton:

An aging workforce is a huge issue for the truck driving industry and the number of retiring drivers far surpasses the number of new recruits.

Kendra Hems:

The other problem is, to be quite blunt, the trucking industry has an image problem. They're not necessarily viewed as, I guess, a sexy career.

Sonari Glinton:

And that's something that the industry is working harder to change. Now, potential drivers here.

Kendra Hems:

You're not just a driver, you are a professional and you're doing a very important job that means a lot to a lot of people. You are essential to the economy. It's something that you can be proud of doing because you truly are supporting not just yourself and your family but the nation as a whole. We were seeing drivers come to grocery stores with our food and our toiletries and our cleaning supplies and they were delivering the PPE in terms of masks and gloves. And aside from our medical professionals, they truly were the heroes in this pandemic. I'm hopeful that that stays and the respect for our drivers stays, and I think respect will go a long way in terms of encouraging individuals to come into this industry and stay in the industry.

Sonari Glinton:

Look, respect is obviously important, see Aretha Franklin, so is knowing you're not in a dead end job. Career growth is now a key selling feature as they try to turn a new generation on to trucking.

Kendra Hems:

Ultimately, you can move up into dispatching or operations management, safety managers, even executive level positions.

Sonari Glinton:

Trucking companies are also finding ways to get their drivers home more often so they're not missing out on friends and family time as much. And well, what about the money? Well, in an economy where there are more jobs than workers, new recruits are demanding more and demanding better; better lifestyle, better conditions and better pay. Before the pandemic, salaries started around $40,000 a year.

Kendra Hems:

We have seen salaries for truck drivers increase exponentially over the last year. A lot of companies are doing sign-on bonuses. I saw one recently as high as $20,000. Obviously they're asking for a commitment for that bonus, but they're doing what they can to entice them in. We're hearing starting salaries up as high as $70,000 depending on years of experience and safety records. We have carriers now that are paying six figures to their drivers.

Sonari Glinton:

If salaries are up exponentially and these other things are happening, then why has it been hard to bring back drivers who got other gigs, do you think?

Kendra Hems:

There's been a lot of changes to try and improve, but the job itself is still hard. It really takes the right individual that enjoys being out on the road that is going to have an interest in the industry.

Sonari Glinton:

Industry leaders are pushing for changes on a lot of fronts. One of the big ones, lowering the age limit for drivers who cross state lines. Right now, they have to be at least 21, but the industry is lobbying the federal government to reduce that age to 18, with a lot of training.

Kendra Hems:

For us, it's not as much a skills gap as it is an age gap right now, and we lose individuals out of high school to other trades.

Sonari Glinton:

But nearly every trade is struggling to fill jobs. Many are being forced to reimagine their workforce altogether. In trucking, they're trying to fine tune their recruitment efforts to appeal to veterans, women, as well as people in the prison system who need a fresh start. But if hiring remains a challenge, how soon in the future are autonomous or self-driving trucks?

Kendra Hems:

Technology has already infiltrated the trucking industry. That's not anything new, that's been happening for years. But as far as what's coming, I don't think it's going to be driver-less as much as it will be driver-assist.

Sonari Glinton:

Now, Kendra doesn't see robots replacing truck drivers anytime soon, but she does think that trucking's transitioned to a more tech based industry that could attract more young people who've grown up with technology. In the meantime, she's been encouraged by what she's seen on the road.

Kendra Hems:

We were starting to see the arm pump come back. Drivers were saying they'd go down the road and they'd see these kids in the backseat pumping their arms for them to blow their horns. It had been quite some time since they'd seen that.

Sonari Glinton:

Technology clearly is going to be a huge part of the future of any labor force, but to what degree and how much it will help the current shortage. Well, Kunwar Walia is a design researcher recently with GE Transportation and he works on making the trucking industry more efficient through digitization, and he thinks putting too much emphasis on autonomy, driverless trucks for example, could actually be a problem.

Kunwar Walia:

I think we are solving for a symptom. That's a symptom that we are not trying to get to the root cause of it. I have spoken to truck drivers. They take pride in their truck driving and they know how much impact they have. But right now the problem is, I think it's the feeling of being non-productive.

Sonari Glinton:

Kunwar saw this firsthand when he was a grad student at the ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles and his class visited a container yard at the port.

Kunwar Walia:

I was just sitting there just trying to understand these operations and I was just questioning myself. Hey, there is like trillions of dollars of cargo that we move annually from this infrastructure and some of the practices are so, I think there's a common term we say in the industry called stone aged.

Sonari Glinton:

Stone age. Yes, it's true. You still see people with pencils and clipboards and carbon copies. It is shocking when you realize the immense volumes of goods moving through or stuck at ports around the world.

Kunwar Walia:

And that's because of the inefficiencies in the system, the bottlenecks in the system. It's just painful when a truck driver is sitting inside a yard and doing nothing and the cargo is not ready for it.

Sonari Glinton:

As you might imagine, those bottlenecks got really bad during the recent supply chain chaos. Drivers can wait up to 12 hours for cargo to be loaded onto their trucks, especially at a backed up port like the ones in Los Angeles and Long Beach. In normal times, drivers can still expect to wait up to two hours to either pick up or unload a container. Kunwar believes this has to change. After grad school, he went to work for GE Transportation, looking at the supply chain from every angle.

Kunwar Walia:

I've kind of understood what problems this industry is going through and then how it trickles down to an end user, like somebody sitting inside the office of a shipper and maybe trying to figure out where my cargo is, and what kind of challenges that person has to go through when it comes to the visibility of the cargo or just operational inefficiencies, whether I don't have a right tool, whether I don't have a right information, how should I get it, how can I optimize my operation. I think in the end it comes down to how I can make my life easy while I'm working.

Sonari Glinton:

And when Kunwar looks at the challenges in the trucking industry, he doesn't see driverless trucks as the first best solution. He thinks there are many more immediate ways to solve the stone age problems, and it starts with how the information is handled, stored and shared.

Kunwar Walia:

This industry needs to go through digital transformation and they have to understand how to function as an IT company.

Sonari Glinton:

Imagine a trucking company as an IT company. And one of the key steps in that transformation is making reliable information available and easy to access. For example, he describes what it can be like to work at a trucking company and be responsible for tracking down cargo.

Kunwar Walia:

I'm assigned like 100 containers to manage today, I'm just going through different website, finding that information container by container just to maybe have an understanding that what is the status of that container today.

Sonari Glinton:

Turns out it can be really hard to keep track of a container. So, many different parties are involved, often without a centralized tracking system, which makes it feel like a frustrating game of tag. The inefficiencies keep truck drivers waiting longer and longer to load and unload, extending their time away from their home and their family. Kunwar wants to see more data shared and standardized so that everyone across the industry can benefit.

Kunwar Walia:

It's not that this industry is not collecting information. They've been collecting information for ages. There is a lot of data which is somewhere in the books, somewhere in some spreadsheets and it's not made accessible to the right kind of stakeholders.

Sonari Glinton:

By making this data available and accessible, Kunwar believes we could reduce a lot of the bottlenecks and frustrations, making the work for truck drivers and anyone along the supply chain much more efficient and rewarding.

Kunwar Walia:

This person would feel more productive. He can enjoy going to the company and working. He's not frustrated from his job. So that's a kind of an impact this digitalization can create. It just makes life easy for a lot of people. And once a digitalization is done, then we have an opportunity to use these AI ML kind of technologies to really start looking ahead.

Sonari Glinton:

Well, that's the point that we're starting to ask, where does autonomy like self-driving trucks make the most sense? Kunwar gets excited. You can hear him tapping his desk when he talks about what he sees as the real goal.

Kunwar Walia:

What things I should automate and how I should automate certain aspects that really assist the users or the end user to make that person's life easy or more productive. If you're able to achieve that, maybe we don't need automation, maybe we don't need to replace that person because that person would be more productive anyhow because he's enjoying his work. We should start from, hey, this is not a human friendly job if it risks somebody's life, and that can be automated.

Sonari Glinton:

Now, the jobs that are high risk, that makes sense. But what about other jobs, ones that are not so high risk like driving trucks? Well, Kunwar thinks that although self-driving trucks will probably be a part of our future, especially for long haul trucking, for now the job remains very human. Automating certain aspects of the job though would make it safer, more comfortable, more efficient, which benefits everyone: the drivers, the businesses, the consumers waiting on their goods. It could also make the job itself much more appealing to those future recruits, and Kunwar thinks some of those innovations will likely come from within the industry, like the drivers themselves. And he says he sees that happen all the time.

Kunwar Walia:

If you see some of the technology innovations that are happening in this space and the people who are doing it, they have a history of doing these things themselves or maybe their parents and they actually use the current technology to solve the same problem from a different angle, from a technology perspective. So that's how things change.

Sonari Glinton:

Think of Kendra Hems, rethinking the family business on an industry-wide level, or think of Christopher Johns, the English truck driver and all the frustration and waiting he faces on the job. How much more would he enjoy his work if some of those bottlenecks and delays were reduced, if the riskiest parts of his work were made safer, if he had an opportunity to make the work better?

Christopher Johns:

I've spent 15 years now and I think the attraction is becoming less and less. The obstacles are increasing and there's no let up. A solution needs to be reached because, yeah, it's a constant battle for us and I don't see that getting any better.

Sonari Glinton:

That discontent is part of what's accelerating big changes in the trucking industry, from working conditions to compensation, to recruitment, to digitization. If there's any good to come from all this supply chain chaos, it's the opportunity to rethink our old ways of doing things, to get out of the stone age and make the work better, safer, and more efficient. Like many industries around the world, truck driving is facing a real reckoning and it's thinking hard about how to value the workers it already has because without them, nothing gets anywhere y'all. Coming up on Now, What's Next, an original podcast from Morgan Stanley, how supply chain disruptions and a shortage of raw ingredients have left pet owners scrambling to find food for their companions. See you next time.

Host Sonari Glinton finds out why the trucking industry is short tens of thousands of drivers, and how the pandemic exacerbated the problem. We learn about the ways the industry is changing to recruit new drivers - and keep the ones it has - and how innovative thinking and technology could lead to an industry-wide overhaul.

In this episode we meet Christopher Johns, a British trucker who’s been driving for 15 years, and knows firsthand why this job is so tough. Kendra Hems, President of the Trucking Association of New York lays out the challenges her industry is facing, and how it’s changing as a result. And Kunwar Walia, a transportation design researcher, unearths some of the baseline issues and how new ways of approaching old problems could help drivers, the industry and the whole supply chain.