Mike Kucharski, co-owner and vice president of JKC Trucking, Chicago’s largest specialty contract carrier, doesn’t look too far down the road when evaluating his business these days.
It’s more about the immediate need to keep trucks on the road and continuing to serve customers in an industry dealing with rising costs, tighter margins and a dwindling supply of drivers and even truck parts.
“It’s one day at a time,” Kucharski said. “We’re trying to stay in business.”
“2008 I thought was a bad year (due to the housing market collapse and subsequent recession), but this is crazy what’s happening,” he said. “We’re having one anomaly after another.”
COVID shutdowns and worker shortages, which hit the industry in 2020, are being compounded by inflation, the Ukraine war and economic sanctions in the past year among a host of other issues.
Meanwhile, the American Trucking Association (ATA) estimates the industry was short about 80,000 drivers nationwide in 2021. And that number could double by 2030.
The situation impacts everything from the movement of farm goods and food supplies to the delivery of many dry goods. Estimates suggest more than 70 percent of freight is hauled by truck in the U.S.
“We go from the Midwest to the West Coast. We do refrigerated and frozen (freight) and bring produce back from California,” Kucharski said of his business, which operates 350 trailers (48 and 53 feet in length) with 250 tractors. “We’re mainly in the food supply chain.”
But, the chain has been rocked by diesel fuel costs that increased by $2 per gallon as of the first week of April compared to last year to a national average of $5.14 per gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration.
“Skyrocketing fuel (costs) are having a major impact on our industry,” Kucharski said. “We have a fuel surcharge we add to the invoice but, when it jumps this much, there’s a lag that kills us. It hits the medium to smaller carriers more because they don’t have the luxury to buy (fuel) in bulk or get bulk discounts.”
Steep fuel costs and driver shortages aren’t the only issues making it difficult to keep trucks on the road.
“I have some trucks down waiting for parts (including water pumps from Japan and air filters from Puerto Rico),” Kucharski said. “And the used (truck) market is skyrocketing.”
What about updating his fleet with new trucks and trailers?
“Manufacturers have said don’t even think about it until 2023,” he said. “I can’t even get a bid on a new trailer because they’re still trying to work out the steel price.
“We typically buy new equipment (annually) and rotate old out,” he noted. “Now there’s a lag that might come back to hurt us.”
As for the ongoing shortage of drivers, ATA reports some left the industry during COVID shutdowns, the rising age of truckers contributes to a higher rate of retirement and only 7 percent of drivers are women, well below their desired representation in the industry.
Tighter regulations also make it more difficult to recruit new drivers, including the federally mandated age of 21 to drive commercially across state lines, according to ATA.
“Over-regulations make it difficult to operate,” Kucharski said. “We’d welcome lawmakers to sit down with us.”
Some would-be and current drivers also struggle to pass drug tests, a situation exacerbated by the fact some states legalized marijuana while the substance is still banned at the federal level, according to ATA.
“We’re all fighting for the same drivers and trying to hang on to the drivers we have,” Kucharski said. “We increased our drivers’ pay twice already and we’re debating whether to raise it again.
“All these dominoes come down to our business and the end-user — the American people.”
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.