FOOD FIRMS FOCUS ON TRUCK DRIVER SHORTAGE

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Strategies for addressing the persistent shortage of truck drivers were top-of-mind during a panel discussion at the recent Grocery Manufacturers of America's Information Systems and Logistics/ Distribution (IS/LD) Conference here.The panel, moderated by Jim Seber, president and chief executive officer, Seber Logistics Consulting, consisted of representatives from Wegmans

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Strategies for addressing the persistent shortage of truck drivers were top-of-mind during a panel discussion at the recent Grocery Manufacturers of America's Information Systems and Logistics/ Distribution (IS/LD) Conference here.

The panel, moderated by Jim Seber, president and chief executive officer, Seber Logistics Consulting, consisted of representatives from Wegmans Food Markets, Welch Foods, ConAgra Foods and Total Logistics Control (TLC).

"I don't see a short-term fix [to the driver shortage]. So, we're trying everything while remaining cautious," said Andrew Stanier, vice president, supply chain, Welch Foods, Concord, Mass., at the conference, held at the PGA National Resort & Spa, April 11 to 13.

The problem will not be helped by demographic trends. Within the next 10 years, 35% to 45% of drivers are expected to retire, according to Rick Blasgen, senior vice president, integrated logistics, ConAgra Foods, Omaha, Neb.

Companies can do their part to retain drivers by familiarizing themselves with freight movement processes, said Matt Luckas, vice president, operations, TLC, Zeeland, Mich. TLC's parent company, Total Logistics, was acquired this year by Supervalu.

"There is typically a very low tolerance on the part of drivers. They know that if there is something about their job that they don't like, they can leave today and have a new job next week," Luckas said. "It's not just an issue with me as their employer, but an issue with all of you because your familiarity with freight movement provides another level of service for them. It's important for all of us to work toward retaining drivers."

Some retailers are already heeding this advice. "At Wegmans, we're trying to communicate with carriers to minimize complaints so that we become a preferred customer," said Tim Murphy, logistics manager, Wegmans, Rochester, N.Y. "We're sitting down and having conversations to understand things like capacity issues and on- boarding processes."

Innovative recruiting strategies are also needed to keep costs low. "Currently, in order to get new drivers, [carriers] steal them from competitors. It increases the cost of doing business for all of us," said Luckas. "We're just not getting the young folks, and that is the primary issue." TLC's policy is not to license drivers until they're 23. "Typically, by that age, they've already found what they want to do," he said.

In addition to labor shortages, panelists raised concerns about the impact that federal hours-of-service regulations are having on their operations. Regulations released last year are still in effect. However, revised rules -- which are still to be issued -- will go into effect Oct.1. Current regulations allow 14 continuous hours on duty and 11 consecutive hours of driving time.

"To avoid hours-of-service limitations, we've explored the option of rail and opening up some DCs to ship rail to. But rail rates increase as quickly or more quickly than those associated [with our current shipping] methods," said Welch Foods' Stanier. "The factors analyzed as part of these decisions today are changing so rapidly that you're really nervous to make a commitment."