'The lifeblood of the local economy'
Although more than 70 truck drivers from various freight companies around Oregon met to compete at the annual Oregon Truck Driving Championships, they could all agree on one thing: "Nothing gets done until the truck driver goes to work."
That was the motto for the Saturday event as more than 500 people gathered at Old Dominion Freight Line's facility in Portland to watch skilled freight drivers maneuver through detailed courses and show off their knowledge of truck safety and operations.
Jana Jarvis, president of the Oregon Trucking Association, said the annual event showcases the impact of the trucking industry in Oregon. As of 2017, she said there were just under 9,500 trucking companies in the state.
"This event brings a lot of prestige to their line of work," Jarvis said.
Spectators stood by the roped-off courses, as the drivers tested their ability to navigate obstacles similar to real-life driving. Overall scores were based off written exams, pre-drive truck inspections and course driving for a variety of truck categories.
Jarvis said the testing demonstrates the importent role drivers play in the Pacific Northwest — drivers like Bethany Ranchool.
Ranchool was just one of two women competing at the event. She said it shows the lack of gender diversity in the trucking industry.
"It's getting better, but there's still a ways to go," Ranchool said.
The driver of four years said she originally let the dream of driving go because it seemed like too much of a male-dominated industry. Most recent labor statistics show women make up 5.1 percent of the trucking field.But Ranchool, a self-loading operator with Leavitt's Freight in Springfield, said she gave the career a shot when she began to notice an upswing in female truckers on the road.
"Realizing that I could do the harder, more physical work that comes with driving took a while," Ranchool said. "I just thought, if they can do it, I can do it."
Although Ranchool has seen an increase in female drivers, Wilt Warren, a UPS Freight driver for the past 20 years, said the United States needs more drivers overall.
"There is a drastic driver shortage in the country and we need people to fill these roles," Warren said.
Even with more than 91,000 trucking industry jobs in Oregon, Warren said the rise in online consumerism has lead to a sharp increase in shipping needs. As for the drivers who deliver these goods, he said there just aren't enough to keep up with daily demand.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average age of truck drivers is 50, but Warren said he hopes younger people join the industry, filling much-needed positions and learning new technologies.
Among the spectators at Saturday's event was Oregon Sen. Chuck Thomsen. He said trucking has always been a large part of his business harvesting peaches in Hood River, in addition to the impact trucking has on Oregon communities.
"The things we have to watch for in Oregon is you don't want to overburden the industry with regulations," Thomsen said. "When fuel and mileage tax is raised, the company must raise its prices to keep up, and everyone they are hauling freight, food and goods for must pay."
When the average car fills up with gasoline, a tax is already bundled into the price. But, when a truck is fueled with diesel, the trucking company must report its mileage as part of a weight-per-mile tax. Oregon's tax for an average 80,000-pound semi-truck sits at roughly 20 cents per mile.
With the growing cost to transport freight and a shortage of skilled drivers, Thomsen said he wonders if he will see a driverless truck maneuvering through his district in the near future.
However, Jarvis said the three million truck drivers in the U.S. shouldn't worry about being replaced.
"New absent driver assisted technology might mean a truck is on autopilot while the driver completes paperwork, but this is not a driverless industry," she said.
For the 76.9 percent of Oregon communities that rely on trucks to deliver their goods, Jarvis said the trucking industry is the "lifeblood of the local economy."
Even with concerns over diversity, driver shortage and industry changes, Ranchool said she will always be most worried about road safety for all drivers.
"I get to run the best roads in the world, so we need to bring back that feeling of safety for everyone on the road," Ranchool said.