From the driver shortage to onerous federal regulations to the autonomous-vehicle future, the issues facing Phil Byrd Sr. and the rest of the U.S. trucking business are humongous. But the president of Bulldog Hiway Express uses a consistent approach to all of the challenges that amounts to “crawl, walk, run.”
Based in Charleston, South Carolina, 60-year-old Bulldog Hiway is a unit of Daseke, the largest owner of flatbed-truck transportation in America. Bulldog Hiway trucks run routes all the way out to California from the company’s base but it focuses on the Southeast and Midwest. Cargos typically are specialty products such as the huge blades for windmills, automotive cargo and military goods.
The much-discussed electronic-logging-device rule that the federal government slapped on the trucking industry in December to get a handle on drivers’ hours had “no impact on us,” Byrd said, because Bulldog Hiway had moved to electronic logging many years ago.
But the company is afflicted with something else that plagues the rest of its industry as well: a tremendous shortage of drivers. Bulldog Hiway has managed to keep about 99 percent of its jobs filled despite the industry’s acute squeeze for people who want to drive big rigs. But in 2018, the company’s turnover rose to about 20 percent, a “very high year for us,” Byrd said, that also reflected a wave of driver retirements.
Byrd, who also is a past president of the American Trucking Association, said that Bulldog Hiway remains in good shape in the ever-intensifying competition to recruit and retain drivers for a number of reasons. And that, he attributed to the company’s “crawl, walk, run” approach.
First, he said, “We train, procure and pay our people well and make sure in our traffic patterns that we suit their lifestyle needs,” he said. “And we have modern equipment. What’s more, Byrd added, “The most important thing we do is respect our drivers. We appreciate them. We demonstrate that not occasionally but daily.”
For instance, he said, “We train and educate people at every level of our company that when we greet a driver and talk with them about an issue, we do it in a professional and respectful manner.” In fact, he said, “We have walked away from some customers who have disrespected our drivers,” such as by not providing restroom facilities at loading docks.
Because of some of the lifestyle issues involved in long-haul trucking – dreary stretches on the road and away from home and loved ones – pundits have predicted that the trucking industry’s shortage of drivers will only worsen as boomers continue to retire and as the transportation system comes to depend on millennials and Generation Z members to populate the rigs.
“But we’re finding that millennials are very interested in the jobs because of our technology such as onboard data recorders,” Byrd said. “Plus they can email from the cab to folks at home. And it’s a paperless environment.”
Bulldog Hiway, Daseke and other carriers are trying to increase the employment pool by lobbying for the federal government to change the law that says truckers must be 21 years old before they can be involved in interstate commerce.
At the same time, the entire industry also is beginning to reckon with an autonomous-vehicle future, which in part is being driven by the prospect of the continuation of a chronic driver shortage. Many of the earliest road trials of driverless vehicles have involved trucks, assuming that transportation of cargo is likely to make it over technology, regulatory and safety hurdles before transporting humans will.
Here’s another area where Byrd’s strategy of “crawl, walk run” is highly applicable. He believes that, before autonomous trucking can enter the mainstream, the federal government must “design a sustainable, stable mechanism to fund the highway needs of today and tomorrow.” That starts with some way to get off the dime where Congress and President Trump haven’t yet agreed on how to meet the estimated trillion-dollar needs of simply refurbishing America’s existing highway infrastructure.
“Once that is in place, then we have a strategy that will lead to success,” Byrd said. It involves automated vehicles that will “talk” to other automated trucks and to a “smart highway grid.” Succeeding with such technology initially, he said, will involve “going to regions of the country where autonomous vehicles have been more successful from a safety standpoint, and in niches of the industry that could utilize them.”