Mercer1 Photo: Sean Kilcarr/American Trucker
A surprise spring snowstorm isn't dampening the "boom times" for the Mercer flatbed fleet.

New breed creating “shifting dynamic” in flatbed sector

Next generation seems more comfortable with technology than with the basics of trucking.

LOUSIVILLE, KY. Dale Corum, general manager for flatbed operator Mercer Transportation, will tell you that while these are “crazy good times” to be in trucking – and especially the open deck market in particular – there are “shifting dynamics” in trucking right now as a lot of the new people coming into the industry didn’t grow up in the hands-on trucking environment many of today’s veteran drivers experienced.

“Thirty years ago drivers came into the business knowing how to fix trucks, tie down loads, and work with their hands – they worked on farms and had fathers and grandfathers who were truck drivers,” Corum explained in an interview here at Mercer’s headquarters. “Now we have people getting into this job because it’s what’s available to them – they’ve never really worked with their hands, physically tying down loads; they’ve never changed out lights or changed engine oil. For our older drivers, this can be frustrating. But we need to embrace the ‘new guys’ because that is where the future is. We need to look to mentor them.”

And this “shifting dynamic” is occurring during one of the strongest boom times in trucking’s history as well, he stressed.

“Right now we’re at 2,300 contractors but even if we had 500 more trucks, it would not be enough to meet the freight demand out there – it is crazy good right now,” Corum said. “Rates are really good right now. We had our best month ever last December – a record of over $41.7 million in revenues. We had our best January ever, our best February ever, and March is shaping up to be our best March ever and maybe set another all-time revenue record for us. We’re going after everything we can right now.”

For example, DAT Solutions noted that load availability and spot rates made “big gains” in the flatbed sector for the week ending March 10, with the flatbed load-to-truck ratio hitting a new record during that week.

The number of flatbed load posts increased 10.8% while truck posts dipped 1% for the weekend ended March 10, the firm noted, compared to the previous week. There were 88.5 available loads for every flatbed truck posted on DAT load boards, up 11%. It was 61.8 a month ago and below 30 in November, the company added. On top of that, the national average flatbed spot rate hit $2.50 per mile, some 11 cents higher compared to the previous week. 

Yet such boom times bring their own set of challenges to trucking as well, Mercer’s Corum noted.

“When freight is good like this it is tougher from a recruiting standpoint; there are a lot of sign-on bonuses out there,” he said. “But we stay away from that; we’re looking to make Mercer a career for a driver – they come here and they retire here. We try to build relationships. We could let drivers find freight for themselves with our mobile app; we could assign 200 or 300 trucks to a dispatcher, whom we call ‘driver coordinators.’ But we only assign 40 to 45 trucks to each coordinator; we want them to be an advocate for the driver, to have someone there to help them specifically fight their fight. Like I’ve said before we also try to match our drivers up with dispatchers with similar interests; if they are military veterans, or they both like to fish, or hunt, or are NASCAR fans. That’s one of the reasons our turnover is low, around 30%, and we expect to be under that in 2018.”

Yet Corum said the current struggle, though, is more about “working with people coming into trucking whose heart is not necessarily in it – it is just a job to them; it’s part of the process of trying to find a job that fits them.”

That’s why he said mentoring is so important. “We have a group of 20 or so people who ‘officially’ asked for the responsibility to be mentors at Mercer,” Corum emphasized. “We started that a couple of years ago. They are people new drivers can call upon for help and we’ve had some good success with it – we’ve had new drivers say if it wasn’t for the mentoring, they wouldn’t have made it at Mercer. But really, all of our veteran drivers are helping out – many share their experience where they can.”

He explained that Mercer had one husband and wife team join the company six or seven years ago that were “as green as it could be when it came to open deck operations and owning their own truck. But we had one of our mentors show them how to change oil, change out lights, work on electrical problems, and how to make owning their own truck a profitable business. He helped them be successful with us. So maybe it is not your ‘ideal job’ at the start but with help we can make it the right job for you – help you make trucking a career for you.”

Yet there’s an interesting twist with the “new generation” of drivers as well, for more of them readily accept and adapt to electronic logging devices (ELDs) and other technologies easily. “It’s the ‘basics’ of trucking that are proving difficult – load securement and changing engine oil,” Corum said. “And it’s not just limited to drivers. About 20 years ago, when we brought in dispatcher candidates, we gave them a blank map of the U.S. and they’d have to place 50% of the states in the right place or we wouldn’t be interested in them – geographical knowledge was very important. But now you can get mapping and mileage data instantly with the internet – in other words, you need to know how to use the technology, not how to sketch maps. That’s a major shift; technology is just something the next generation embraces.”

 

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