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The state of California is currently reportedly experiencing a worsening shortage of truck drivers, which is concerning farmers. If a solution doesn’t emerge soon, it is expected that there is a big possibility there might not be enough hauling capacity to bring this year’s harvest to market.
According to Transport Topics, the California Trucking Association said initial indications attribute the shortfall to be as high as 30%. The possible reasons the association presented as to why this is happening include an aging workforce and some drivers possibly choosing to collect unemployment benefits rather than return to work during the pandemic.
While the driver shortage has affected many industries for some years now, farmers already wrestling with congestion at Southern California ports say the situation threatens to drive up food prices as produce sits in the field for too long. “For us, it’s a food issue,” John Larrea, director of government affairs for the California League of Food Producers, which represents growers in Kern and elsewhere, reportedly said. “Nobody wants wilted lettuce.”
The industry now hopes that the Biden administration can be persuaded to temporarily relax truck-weight regulations, as the previous administration did. That 120-day emergency measure, before expiring in July, permitted tractor-trucks to exceed their 80,000-pound weight limit by 10%, essentially reducing the need for additional drivers.
That, however, presents safety worries and does nothing to address the long-term challenge of finding more people to drive trucks. “We aren’t refilling the ranks of the truckers anymore. With new driving-time restrictions and less desire to be gone from home so much, it’s less attractive,” Kevin Andrew, senior vice president of Bakersfield-based farming company Illume, reportedly said.
People in the local trucking industry reportedly point to a variety of hurdles holding them back. Many say they have driver positions that have gone unfilled for months, and that relatively generous jobless benefits have not helped.
As reported by Transport Topics, the owner of Mann Transport Inc. in Bakersfield, Jay Mann, said 90% of his business is California outbound produce. With about 15 drivers, the company could use 10 more immediately, but workers who left during the pandemic never came back and job applications are coming in far too slowly. “We feel like people are staying home because they’re being paid to stay home,” he said.
Mann, for his part, said he was skeptical of an industry proposal to increase the maximum truck weight by 10% because, he said, it burns fuel and wears out tires faster than normal, not to mention the safety implications. “These heavy vehicles, it’s not easy to stop them,” he said. “Add more weight on them, it’s going to make it difficult.” He suggested allowing trucks to carry just a few hundred extra pounds to avoid time-wasting trips back to the packing house when a load is found to be just a little too heavy.
However, as previously mentioned, there are other obstacles to overcome. The average age of a truck driver is mid-50s, which suggests that the bulk of the workforce will retire within a couple of decades. But also, driver-testing facilities face a backlog that developed during the pandemic, and that needs to be resolved as well.
Another factor cited is competition with e-commerce. More drivers have been reportedly hired lately to make local deliveries in a van, which generally gets employees home in time for dinner. The industry reportedly sees the shortage as a long-term issue that won’t be easy to solve.