What's going on with America's truckers? Will the shortages starting to show up on grocery-store shelves soon end, or should consumers expect them to get worse?
Trucking company executive Mike Kucharski answered those questions and more in a Nov. 10 interview with Brannon Howse Live.
Kucharski is one of the family owners of Chicago-based JKC Trucking Co., which specializes in climate-controlled shipping and is Chicago's largest specialized contract carrier of LTL [less than load] freight.
Howse asked Kucharski to help his audience of more than 1 million viewers understand what is going on with America's critical infrastructure and strained supply lines.
"It makes me a little nervous when my grocery store starts looking like a Third World country," Howse said.
Kucharski said there is simply not enough capacity right now throughout the freight system.
"We've got a historic driver shortage and historic labor shortage. These are only the ripple effects caused by the shutdown of the economy [due to Covid]," Kucharski said.
He said 20 to 25 percent of drivers have never returned to their jobs since the shutdown of 2020.
But it's not just drivers who are in short supply. Often when a truck pulls up to a loading dock behind a retail store, there is no one there to unload it.
"One of our biggest issues getting product to places is it takes us longer to unload because there's not enough labor, which equals lost time, which equals lost revenue, and that's causing a backup of trucks disrupting the supply chains to deliver food in a timely manner. And it affects the end user, the American people, in the pocket."
Whereas it took about two hours to unload a delivery before the pandemic, now it can take up to two days, depending on the store.
"So we don't go to those places. We can't afford to risk it. I need those drivers to unload, come back to load back up so we can start the cycle all over again, so we can get the supply chain back up and running," said Kucharski, whose company owns about 200 trucks.
All trucking companies are in a similar predicament.
"And these drivers are also a little bit impatient, sitting there for that long is ridiculous," he said. "Even if they're getting paid, drivers love what they do, and being held up at one shipper, it's just a no go. We want to do as much work as possible with limited resources and that's what we're doing."
Now, what about inflation? What is causing prices of food and other goods to skyrocket?
Fuel prices have spiked from a national average of just over $2 a gallon when President Trump left office to about $3.50 a gallon under Biden. And Kucharski said his company is having to pay drivers more to draw them back into the labor market and to retain those who already are working.
"All the companies are fighting for the same drivers, trying to get drivers to jump ship," he said. "That's across the board. I just lost two drivers to competitors and that's not good for anyone."
Compounding the problem with a lack of truckers is "over-regulation" on the West Coast, he said.
Many of the smaller trucking companies don't have the required equipment on their trucks, and can't afford to buy it, so they avoid California and its many ports.
"The State of California has more regulations than any other state. Many truckers are owner operators, and California is trying to delete that classification and make every driver an employee of a big company," Kucharski said.
So almost all the one-truck operators' drivers have abandoned California, because they feel like California abandoned them.
He said California requires a particular filter to be retrofitted on every truck.
"Some guys are just getting by week by week and can't afford these filters so they either sell their truck or they move on to another state that is not as heavily regulated," he said. "There are 49 other states that trucks go to."
But that's not the end of the problems for the trucking industry.
Not only are they facing a shortage of drivers and dock workers to unload their goods, but they are also faced with a shortage of trucks and truck parts.
"Right now, you cannot even buy a new truck because they are short of chips," he said, and that's because all the chips come from China or Taiwan, "and you can't get them.
"The parts crunch is going to get worse because we've already stopped production, and we're already waiting for parts to come in from Japan, like pumps and air filters, which we haven't seen since April, and so when all the stock in the U.S. is depleted, when those parts break or need to be replaced, we're going to stop running and that's going to create chaos."
He said 70 percent of all goods arrive at their destination by truck.
"It's very hard to be a business owner in America right now with all the regulations and all the new regulations coming in. If we don't make enough money, we're going to be gone overnight and that's not going to help anybody," Kucharski said.
"You can't see the future, you can't gauge it, because every week something else is happening. You're just in complete darkness. There's just a lot of stress ...so we can keep feeding America."
The majority of truck drivers, 57 percent, are over the age of 45 and 23 percent are over 50.
"So we have an older generation. So when these drivers retire, we don't have a new pool or fresh drivers coming in," he said.
Howse asked if driverless trucks are just over the horizon.
"Yes, it will come but not anytime soon," Kucharski said.
He said the cameras are not yet fully capable of seeing the lines of the road under certain conditions, such as ice or dust on the roads.
"That's their biggest issue."
He said a technology called "convoying" will likely arrive before driverless trucks.
This is where one truck is electronically linked behind a second lead truck, "so one driver can take two loads. That will happen before autonomous driving trucks happen."
Howse also asked about the threat of cyber attacks.
Kucharski recently attended a conference on the impact of cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, including transportation companies.
"It’s a real thing, it's happening and they said pretty much everyone in this room will be cyber attacked in the next ten years."
With all of these challenges facing the industry that delivers 70 percent of America's goods to the stores that sell them to consumers, Americans should prepare for even great shortages of food, fuel and other basic necessities in the months ahead.
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