Red River Valley sees truck driver crunch

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By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

The annual crunch for trucks in the northern Red River Valley has intensified in the past several weeks.

FARGO, N.D. — The annual crunch for trucks in the northern Red River Valley has intensified in the past several weeks.

Britton Transport in Grand Forks, N.D., hauls numerous commodities — fresh and bulk potatoes, frozen potatoes, flour from the North Dakota Mill and Elevator, pasta, dry edible beans and some sugar, according to its president, Jim Stockeland.

Britton Transport has seen double-digit growth in the past three years, and agriculture has been a driving force behind it, Stockeland says.

“For several years now, we’ve experienced a driver shortage in the Red River Valley,” Stockeland says. “I wouldn’t say we’re noticing more of an impact this year over the past seven to 10 years.”

North Dakota’s potato harvest was reported 88 percent complete on Oct. 14 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“They need to ship them; they’re willing to pay high prices,” Stockeland says.

Arik Spencer, executive vice president of the North Dakota Motor Carriers Association based in Bismarck, says there is certainly a driver shortage nationwide, but especially in a region that includes the Bakken oil fields.

“Anytime you have the low unemployment we’ve had, that certainly lends to this kind of situation,” he says.

The general commercial motor carrier business has increased in the past five years because of a healthy economy in oil-related business, as well as agriculture and manufacturing.

“There’s an increase in the larger ones; truck companies are growing,” Spencer says. “But the largest components are owner-operators, who have a truck or two.”

The percent of freight moved by trucks is projected to increase nationally, Spencer says, and with the number of drivers moving from job to job or retiring, the industry needs to replace a large number of them. He says older drivers who have been driving for a number of years have good safety records.

Societal changes

As the driver population is decreasing, and as regulations have increased, drivers have fewer hours to do their job and make a living.

“Society is changing,” Stockeland says.

The result has been increased driver pay.

“It’s a kind of Catch-22,” Stockeland says. “We can’t keep up.”

Spencer says there are not a lot of driving schools in North Dakota. The ones that exist are affiliated with two-year colleges, but don’t have a large capacity. Some of the schools have a waiting list, some don’t.

“It doesn’t take a great deal of time to pass a standard commercial driver’s license, but employers in the oilfield look for people with oilfield experience, which includes a safety focus,” he says.

“There is additional training if you want to drive hazmat or doubles, or triples (trailer numbers),” Spencer says. “To be successful, you need to be able to focus on safety and have a good road awareness, and be willing to spend some time away from home — travel to the other parts of the country or to the oil fields. That’s not for everybody.”

Spencer says an average annual wage for truck drivers in the state might be $38,000 to $40,000 a year, while truck drivers in the oilfield might be able to earn $100,000 to $120,000.

Younger drivers are sometimes used for agricultural transportation, but with longer trips to markets, the economics require some kind of back-haul, which requires more experienc- ed drivers. A lot of the trucking in the state is agriculture-related, but there are few ag-related members of the association.

People can’t get insurance for trucking until they are 21, and two years of verifiable over-the-road experience is often a general insurance requirement, says Senta Brookshire, safety manager for Britton Transport. Most are not hired until about age 25.
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By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek
Posted in In the News

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