Richmond Times-Dispatch: Editorial: Supply chain solutions require a 360-degree view

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, EDITORIAL

On Tuesday morning, traffic was heavy on state Route 106/609, near the border between New Kent and Charles City counties. Cars lined up on the southbound side of the highway to make a left turn onto Barnetts Road, yielding to a vehicle from Atlantic Bulk Carrier — the largest tank-truck carrier in Virginia. The driver patiently executed the wide turn, making the tough maneuver look easy.

At the 51-year-old company’s headquarters just down Barnetts Road, top voices in the commonwealth’s trucking industry joined Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, to discuss just how tough it is to keep these kinds of quality drivers.

Time and money are invested in training (and retaining) workers, yet the turnover rate for truck drivers is incredibly high. Per Spanberger’s office, trucks move more than 72% of U.S. freight. Yet in 2021, there was a record-high nationwide shortage of 80,000 drivers.

“There are so many different elements and so many different angles to the things that we have to overcome to bring and keep folks in this industry,” said J. Ward Best, vice president of Atlantic Bulk Carrier. “We appreciate any and all efforts, because I’m not certain there is any one silver bullet out there.”

Best is right. Supply chain solutions require a 360-degree view of trucking, beginning with better awareness of some under-the-radar concerns.

To address the driver shortage, federal lawmakers recently proceeded with an apprenticeship pilot program for young truckers. Established through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, it allows 18- to 20-year-olds with state-issued commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) — and clean records — to operate interstate trucks under some conditions. The program also begins with help from more experienced counterparts.

As the pilot program advances, state legislatures also recently have legalized marijuana, including Virginia. But trucking is federally regulated, with rules on substance use. In late 2016, at Congress’ direction, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) launched a clearinghouse to collect drug and alcohol test violations by CDL holders.

“This is a major safety win for the general public and the entire commercial motor vehicle industry,” said then-FMCSA Administrator Scott Darling. “The clearinghouse will allow carriers across the country to identify current and prospective drivers who have tested positive for drugs or alcohol, and employ those who drive drug- and alcohol-free.”

Clearinghouse compliance officially began in January 2020, two months before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Truckers with positive test results immediately lose their driving privileges, and have to complete a “return-to-duty” process with substance use counseling, the FMCSA explains.

The trade publication FreightWaves recently reported that roughly 105,000 drivers registered at least one alcohol or drug use violation between January 2020 and January 2022. More than 60,000 drivers were cited for marijuana use, and Best said less than one-third of them underwent the necessary counseling to return to the industry.

“We supported the database and the clearinghouse and all of that because we’re all about safety,” said Dale Bennett, president and CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association. “The last thing we want is people that are using illegal drugs driving [our vehicles] in an impaired manner. But it’s sort of this mixed message.”

The drug use policies should stay in place. But to stem the loss of so many drivers, Bennett is right. There needs to be clearer messaging on the profession’s rules and responsibilities — before a failed test happens.

Even truck drivers who understand and follow the clearinghouse rules have faced lengthy delays in getting licensed.

Through its FastForward credentials program, Virginia sets expectations that CDL coursework only will take a matter of weeks. But procuring a road test appointment with the Department of Motor Vehicles was taking just as long, if not longer.

The DMV website lists only nine testing locations across the commonwealth. Alan Jones, president of Richmond-based Abilene Motor Express, said Tuesday that during the pandemic, the road test wait was up to six months. Best added that to limit close contact, the DMV used “chase cars” to follow and assess truck drivers during their road tests.

A September 2021 RTD Business story noted Abilene Motor Express was permitted by DMV to operate as a third-party tester and help clear the CDL backlog. From that experience, Jones added that for financial incentives to work, they have come alongside fewer logistical hurdles. These complications cost workers and companies time, or worse yet, they compel drivers to pursue alternative jobs.

“The state already is paying millions and millions and millions of dollars to these schools to train people,” Jones said. “And they get the money and they go to DMV and [it says], ‘Hey, we’ve got you in for six months.’ And [then] they go to Amazon to work in a warehouse.”

While industry leaders said Tuesday that the DMV backlog reportedly has eased, more has to be done, beginning with Gov. Glenn Youngkin appointing a new commissioner.

Youngkin already heeded Jones’ words by recently signing House Bill 553. Carried by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, it directs the Virginia Department of Transportation to identify ways to reduce regulatory inefficiencies.

VDOT also will work with the departments of Labor, Veterans Services and Corrections to carve more CDL training pathways. The bill then emphasizes third-party coordination with higher education institutions and businesses to expand testing and training options.

At the federal level, Spanberger is zeroing in on financial concerns for drivers both before and during their careers. The “Strengthening Supply Chains Through Truck Driver Incentives Act” would create refundable tax credits for both new truckers (up to $10,000) and existing ones who log 1,900-plus hours annually (up to $7,500).

“The 80,000 is the alarm bell right now,” Spanberger said at Tuesday’s roundtable, referencing the nationwide driver shortage. “If you don’t listen to it, next year we’re having a conversation and the numbers are going higher and higher.”

Additionally, Spanberger has worked with Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st, on a bill that would let Virginians use 529 Savings Accounts toward skilled trades education. As Virginia 529 explains, these plans help families set aside funds for higher education, free from federal taxes, and with a state income tax deduction option.

“That’s a big issue because you’ve got parents who start saving when a child is young,” Bennett said Tuesday. “They get to high-school age and go, ‘You know, I don’t want to college. I’d rather be a diesel mechanic or a truck driver or whatever’ … and you can’t use that money.”

“And you’ve saved that money,” Spanberger responded. “You’ve saved it for a variety of [reasons] and the purpose was to help your kid be able to go into whatever profession. And if that profession doesn’t require a four-year degree, the idea that you would not be allowed to use that money to learn to be a truck driver, to learn to be a mechanic, to learn any other skilled, training-necessitated profession is really outrageous to me.”

Lawmakers like Youngkin, O’Quinn and Spanberger should be credited for their attention to addressing these issues from every angle. More importantly, industry experts should be recognized for their willingness to address tough questions. Supply chain challenges won’t be solved without a 360-degree view of the trucking industry.

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