Truck-driving competition places focus on safety, skills
Trisha Cordero began polishing her truck driving skills as a little girl, when she would pretend she was a driver making deliveries to an imaginary store. This past weekend, she had a chance to show how she's improved on those skills in recent years.
Now in her fifth year working for FedEx, Cordero was one of more than 120 commercial truck drivers who competed in the 2019 Oregon Truck Driving Champions held Saturday, June 8 at Reddaway in North Portland. The annual event is organized by the Oregon Trucking Association.
The drivers, representing local companies as well as national companies with Oregon divisions, participated in nine categories that included trucks with three, four and five axles; step vans; and twin trailers.
Showing off driving skills — and earning bragging rights for those skills — is just one facet of the competition, however. The main focus is on safety. In order to participate in the competition, drivers must be accident-free for the 12 months leading up to the competition.
Chris Outen, another FedEx driver and a regular participant in the local truck driving competition, has managed to win nine trips to the national championships, taking home second place twice. But he's equally proud of his answer when asked how long he's been making a living driving trucks.
"Thirty-one accident-free years — 1.6 million miles," he said.
At 711,000, the number of trucking companies in the U.S. is at an all-time high, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The industry employs more than 3.5 million workers. However, the average driver is 46 years old, and trucking companies worry they'll soon be facing a labor shortage as those workers begin to leave the workforce.
"Our concern is that in the next 10 years, we'll have a lot of retirements," David Hopkins, a logistics manager with a local company called TP Products, said.
That has TP Products looking at new ways to attract a next generation of drivers. Hopkins, for example, recently took a superintendent of a local school district for a ride-along to show off one of the company's new trucks, which offer comforts like cushy seats, microwaves and refrigerators — and satellite television systems.
Oregon legislators like Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-District 30, also are looking at ways to help make the industry more attractive to a new generation of workers. Sollman, who stopped by the truck driving competition, has family connections to the industry. Her father-in-law, used to drive for moving companies Mayflower and Global, and her son, who has a commercial driver's license, drives for Asplundh.
Sollman said she's currently looking at creating a program that would provide opportunities for incarcerated youth at facilities like McClaren to obtain commercial driver's licenses in order to be able to obtain jobs with trucking companies upon their release.
Trucking companies also are looking at tapping new demographics for drivers. While the majority of workers in the industry are still white males, more women and Hispanics are represented in drivers under 35 years of age than those 35 and older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition, drivers in that younger group have more education than their older counterparts.
FedEx driver Cordero is one of those newer female arrivals in the industry. Building on her childhood dreams of being a delivery driver, she got a job behind the wheel for Pizza Hut. Five years, ago, feeling like it was time to take what she calls the "next step," she began driving for Fed Ex. This was Cordero's second year participating in the championships. Last year, she took first place in the pre-trip Inspection portion of the competition and third in one of the truck driving categories.
After the 2018 Oregon event, some of the women drivers who were watching the competition come up and told her that she inspired them to compete. But at the national competition, out of 200 competitors, she was surprised that she spotted just five other women. For Cordero, the competition gives her a chance to show off the skills that have earned her the recognition of her male colleagues.
"They respect me 'cause I'm good at my job," she said.
Comforts of home
The slowly changing pool of drivers has led companies to begin shifting their traditional ways of doing business, according to Jana Jarvis, president of the Oregon Trucking Association.
TP Trucking, for example, has switched out old flat-bed trailers for new van-curtain-style trailers. The older trailers required drivers to wrangle heavy tarps over loads and then tie them down. The newer trailers are easier and faster to load, with a series of buckled ties that, when loosened, allow the driver to simple roll back a curtain covering the side of the truck and then unload along the length of the truck rather than having to unload the length of the truck from the back.
Companies also offer drivers a choice of how they work, offering three different fleet arrangements, according to Hopkins. Most people outside the industry think all truck drivers pull long-haul stints, which require them to be away from home for weeks or even months at a time. While those routes do exist, companies like TP Products also offer local routes, which allow drivers to go home at the end of every day, and regional routes, which may keep the on the road overnight or for just a few days.
The one thing that hasn't changed about the industry, however, is the fact that it's family focused. At TP Trucking, drivers with overnight or long-haul routes are encouraged to bring the children or grandchildren along on trips. The company has even upgraded its fleets, at a cost of about $225,000 per truck, so that all of the trucks now feature bunk beds, Hopkins said.
Another factor that has changed the way trucking companies operate has been the rise in hub-and-spoke distribution models driven by Amazon and other quick-delivery retailers. The model has created an unprecedented demand for trucking services, according to Jarvis.
Last year, for example, was a record year for the trucking industry. The numbers dipped slightly during the first quarter of this year, but not enough to throw the industry off track.
"The first quarter was a little softer than last year, but it's still going to be a good year," Jarvis said.
However, she worries that may change in the future for companies based in Oregon.
The state is already the most expensive in the country in which to run a trucking company, Jarvis said. The roughly $30,000 a company ends up paying per year in state and federal road user fees in Oregon is approximately $7,000 more than the second most expensive state, California, and about double the national average.
Jarvis' organization has been keeping a close eye on proposed legislation in Salem that the group worries will end up driving up the cost of doing business in the state even further.
Trucking companies have already felt the squeeze from House Bill 2017, a transportation bill passed by legislators two years ago that's on track to increase a state tax on gas and diesel by 10 cents per gallon over a 10-year period.
This session, House Bill 2020, a cap-and-trade bill, would push the price of diesel even higher for trucking companies, adding 16 cents to 22 cents to the per-gallon cost "overnight," Jarvis said. That additional amount would increase in future years, potentially reaching a total price increase of $3 more per gallon by 2050.
The cap-and-trade model is designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while encouraging industries to move toward alternatives to diesel, something that's easier said than done for the trucking industry, according to Jarvis.
"The technology just isn't available today," she said.
While companies are working on electric trucks — Daimler, for example, has committed to switching over its Portland facility — there currently aren't any of the vehicles on the market yet for companies to put on the road.
"We're interested, but there are a lot of unknows out there right now," Hopkins said.
Hopkins set aside concerns about the trucking industry's future temporarily at Saturday's local driving championships to focus on a special event featured this year. The event offered Hopkins and other managers and trucking company employees who tend to ride desks more than the road a chance to compete against each other on the event course.
Drivers in the regular portion of the competition train regularly throughout the year. The FedEx team, for example, spends Saturday mornings at the company's Portland terminal running courses that feature obstacles similar to those used for local and national competitions. But for managers like Hopkins, driving may be limited to once or twice a month when they're delivering a new truck to a driver or dropping one off for maintenance.
Hopkins admitted he hadn't had time to practice for the competition but said he felt pretty confident he would be able to do well on the course.
"It's like riding a bicycle," he said. "It comes back to you."