Effort to boost exports often leads to a scramble for trucks

Medill News ServiceDecember 30, 2013 

— As many states look to increase their global exports, one of the biggest challenges may be among the most basic: finding ways to move products so they’re ready to be shipped overseas.

In Idaho, for example, wheat, vegetables and dairy products were among the top agricultural exports in 2012, according to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. The products were destined for Canada, Mexico, China and Japan.

But Idaho’s location sometimes limits local businesses’ ability to ship exports abroad efficiently, fueling a reliance on truck drivers to haul goods to transfer points such as Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Oakland, Calif., said Jan Roeser, a regional economist at the Idaho Department of Labor.

“We can’t even get enough trucks,” said Bill Newbry, the chief executive officer of the Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative, which represents more than 750 farmers in the Washington and Idaho border region. “We could utilize 12 to 15 a day, and we’re lucky to get three or four. It’s very, very difficult to get the commodity out on time.”

Granted, there’s a river port in the northern Idaho town of Lewiston, about 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean. But some central and southern Idaho businesses aren’t able to access it easily, Roeser said.

In 2011, about 500,000 tons of wheat was shipped from the port, increasing to about 725,000 in 2012, according to port records. The number of container shipments from the port dropped from about 13,000 in 2007 to 5,000 in 2012, however.

The container decline “has been a function of the Great Recession,” said David Doeringsfeld, the manager of the Port of Lewiston. “We’re not trying to become a West Coast port. What we’re doing is providing for the region the least-cost method for local businesses.”

Limited access to freight rail is another problem Idaho businesses face.

“We don’t have as many goods as others might, so we don’t get preferential treatment by the railroads,” Roeser said. “We have smaller amounts, smaller goods, and it just doesn’t pay for them to stop and pick up what we have.”

Although the demand for Idaho truck drivers continues to increase, experts say trucking companies face recruitment challenges, which further limits the state’s ability to increase global exports.

The nationwide demand for truck drivers will grow by 21 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the national average for all occupations, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects.

“Trucks go anywhere or just about anywhere,” said Bob Costello, the chief economist at the American Trucking Associations. “As the economy continues to improve, we see demands for truck drivers increasing. If you go to truck driver training school and don’t have a criminal record or poor driving record, you’re going to get hired.”

In Idaho, about 20,000 truck drivers and driver/sales workers were employed in 2012, up from about 18,000 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

To recruit more drivers to transport goods to transfer points, Julie Pipal, the president and CEO of the Idaho Trucking Association, said driving schools and trucking companies were partnering up.

One of those is Handy Truck Line, which has about 100 employees and four locations in Idaho. It’s reached out to job centers to attract more drivers, said Clay Handy, the company’s CEO.

While Handy said he hadn’t encountered many problems retaining truck drivers, he said some companies faced high turnover.

“The core problem is that for most people, it’s not an attractive job,” he said. “They want to be home more often.”

The solution, Handy said, was to ask single truck drivers without families to take overnight shifts, while those with families work day shifts.

“You can tell how good the economy is by the demand for transportation,” said Newbry, of the farmers’ cooperative. “If you can’t find enough trucks to haul your product, they’re somewhere else hauling.”

The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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