Demand for truck drivers rising with increasing freight

MARSHALL — Southwest Minnesota trucking companies are looking for a few good drivers.

Actually, they need a lot more drivers to overcome a continual shortage that goes back years and made worse by the pandemic.

Ryan Viessman, director of operations at Cliff Viessman, Inc., said the company currently doesn’t have enough tanker truck drivers to meet demand.

“It’s been an ongoing problem for a long time,” Viessman said of the driver shortage.

While a shortage of truck drivers wasn’t a new problem, Viessman and other representatives from trucking companies in Marshall said some things came to a head over the past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic had changing effects on production lines and the need for freight haulers.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hard to replace experienced truck drivers when they retired, said Curt Vogt, Marshall terminal manager for Doug Bradley Trucking.

“It’s been affecting us for years now,” Vogt said. “I think as time has gone on, there are not as many truck drivers in the workplace.”

Both Vogt and Chad Eickhoff of Eickhoff Enterprises said regulations in the trucking industry were part of what made it difficult to find drivers. For example, a truck driver has to be 21 to be able to drive to other states. By the time young workers turn 21, they’ve often decided to follow other career paths, Vogt said.

Eickhoff said he was also concerned about the potential future effect of federal legislation like Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. If passed, it could hurt truck owner-operators who are driving as independent contractors, he said.

But while there hasn’t been a sudden shortage of truck drivers in the region, the disruption COVID-19 caused in business and industry also affected trucking.

“It’s definitely affected the supply chain,” Vogt said.

A lot of factors can affect how much of a demand there is for trucks to haul freight, Viessman and Eickhoff said. Slowed production affected the volume of freight being hauled. Early in the pandemic, industries like food service and meat processing had to close or cut back on operations. Decreased ethanol production also meant CVI was hauling less distillers grains than usual, Viessman said.

Viessman said another challenge for drivers over the past year was delays with shippers and receivers. Sometimes, drivers would have to wait in a backlog of trucks that needed to be unloaded, he said.

“At the end of the year, things started to improve,” Eickhoff said. But with more industries going back to normal, there’s still a big impact on demand for truckers, Viessman said.

“There’s so much freight to haul right now,” and not enough drivers, Viessman said. Viessman said currently CVI didn’t have enough tanker truck drivers to meet demand, and had to turn down some work. CVI’s tankers haul liquid food-grade products like sweeteners or vegetable oil, he said.

Managers at some Marshall retailers, like Hy-Vee, Menards and Runnings, said this week they haven’t seen issues with shipments arriving at their stores. In the case of Runnings, outbound shipping to stores in the area is done through a local contractor, said distribution center manager Chris Brinkman.

However, Brinkman said the pandemic has had an impact on shipping and distribution.

“Last year was a unique year,” he said. Brinkman said factors related to the pandemic, like pressure on supplies of certain products or decreased production by vendors, could cause shipping delays or backlogs. With more manufacturers opening up, “Orders can get in a lot better now,” he said.

“There’s definitely been an impact, on I think every business,” said Brad Facile, transportation manager at Turkey Valley Farms. The COVID-19 pandemic affected the flow of products and freight around the country.

Facile said Turkey Valley Farms has its own fleet of eight trucks, and contracts out to other haulers for extra loads.

“We’re pretty lucky, we’ve got a good group,” Facile said. However, he said the pandemic has had an affect on freight rates and the availability of haulers over the past year.

“Freight was definitely lower” during the early part of the pandemic, and trucks were carrying fewer loads, he said. Now, the number of loads per truck is up, and businesses are fighting for limited trucking options.

Viessman said CVI was trying to find ways to recruit more truck drivers, as well as diesel mechanics and truck wash technicians. The company’s website advertises incentives like sign-on and referral bonuses, and Viessman said they were also taking steps that help drivers, like pre-loading vehicles as much as possible.

The positive thing, he said, was “It seems like once we get new drivers, we keep them.”

“We’re very proud of our people,” and how they got through the pandemic, Viessman said.

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