Thursday, December 7

How e-commerce altered the trucking industry

Walmart’s plan to recruit truckers to its private fleet by offering drivers double the median pay for shorter hauls is just the latest example of how the rise of e-commerce has changed the trucking industry, experts said.

The retail giant announced plans last week to increase pay for drivers delivering goods and products to its warehouses and stores.

First-year Walmart drivers can now earn up to $110,000, more than double the industry’s $47,130 median pay for long-haul drivers, demonstrating how far the company is willing to go to recruit truckers in a tight labor market. Walmart did not respond to a request for comment. CNBC previously reported that company officials said drivers have earned an average of $87,500 in their first year.

Similar competition — driven by the growth of e-commerce and demand for rapid home deliveries — has in recent years pushed the trucking industry to remake itself, putting more long- and short-haul trucks on the road and reducing delivery times, trucking experts said .

It has also given truckers more options, including the opportunity to join fleets offering higher wages and shorter routes and the ability to spend more time with their families, said Bob Costello, the chief economist at the American Trucking Associations.

However, the exodus of truckers from traditional fleets may worsen the national trucking shortage and take away some of the best and most experienced drivers in the industry, federal transportation officials and trucking experts said.

Freight employers, which include trucking companies, are experiencing challenges recruiting and retaining qualified applicants because of “challenging working conditions,” the Transportation Department wrote when it released its supply chain assessment report in February.

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“As e-commerce creates additional demand for warehousing jobs and short-haul freight, long-haul trucking positions may become harder to fill,” according to the report, which added that long hours away from home and high turnover rates may lead truckers to seek employment elsewhere.

Trucks line up to have containers loaded at the Norfolk International Terminal in Norfolk, Va., on Dec 1. Walmart workers who eleven unloaded trucks now have a chance to drive them. The country’s largest retailer has launched a training program for employees who work in its distribution or fulfillment centers. Steve Helber / AP

In a 2019 report, the American Transportation Research Institute cited the growth in e-commerce, along with drivers’ retirements and competition from other industries, as contributing to a trucker shortage.

“The growing demand for truck transportation from e-commerce is further exacerbating the industry’s issues with vehicle capacity and truck driver demand,” the report read.

Walmart runs and controls its own fleet as the largest private trucking company in the country, boasting more than 12,000 drivers, which makes for an enticing job for those who want to spend less time on the road.

“There’s definitely going to be a migration of drivers,” said Thomas Balzer, the president of the Ohio Trucking Association.

Driving shorter routes for e-commerce companies is an attractive opportunity for more qualified drivers and truck loaders, who get shorter work trips and are able to work closer to home, the American Transportation Research Institute wrote in its report.

Experts say competition to recruit and retain skilled drivers has allowed truckers to earn more in recent years, even more so during the pandemic, when supply chain issues have made it more difficult to deliver goods everywhere.

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Image: Walmart truck driver
A Walmart driver gets in his truck after a break at a Love’s truck stop in Springville, Utah, on Nov. 5.George Frey / Getty Images file

“We’re in an environment where pay has been going up and continues going up” in a tight driver market in which demand is outstripping supplies, Costello said.

Ellen Voie, the president of the Women In Trucking Association, said drivers in general should earn more and enjoy better benefits and job flexibility for their hard work.

“That’s a good thing, because drivers need to get paid more for what they do,” Voie said, adding that drivers sometimes even receive stock options after they switch to the private fleets.

But the hiring standards at Walmart and other e-commerce companies are competitive, experts said.

“You have to be the cream of the crop. The training and testing is intense,” Balzer said.

Costello said the best example of how e-commerce has changed the trucking industry is the reduction in the average trucking haul across the industry.

In general, the average drive for long haulers crisscrossing several states to deliver goods has dwindled from 800 to 500 miles over the last two decades, he said.

“So there are more loads but at fewer thousands,” Costello said.

Before the e-commerce boom, big-box retailers had three to five distribution centers across the country where truckers would deliver those loads, but now they have dozens of warehouses.

And in the last decade, as consumers preferred at-home drop-offs, delivery times became faster.

Trucks that were being driven 130,000 miles a year are now doing closer to 100,000 miles as the industry has evolved over the past two decades, Costello said.

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