Is underutilization of truck drivers exacerbating the driver shortage?

Editor’s Note: The SCM thesis Overcoming the Driver Shortage by Addressing Driver Detention was authored […]

Editor’s Note: The SCM thesis Overcoming the Driver Shortage by Addressing Driver Detention was authored by David Mera and Sandeep Kumar Sirikande and supervised by Dr. David Correll (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)). For more information on the research, please contact the thesis supervisor.

Trucking in the United States is a mammoth industry, making up more than 70% of the transportation of goods across the country. Trucking generated revenues exceeding $732 billion in 2020. Despite its crucial role in moving goods and keeping the economy running, trucking faces a major concern in driver availability. American Trucking Associations estimated a shortage of 80,000 drivers in 2021.

However, one often-overlooked contributing factor to the increased shortages is the underutilization of existing drivers: when a driver is unable to drive for the full amount of time per day allowed by law. This underutilization can stem from various causes, but one issue that has a particularly severe impact is driver detention. That’s when drivers face long delays at warehouses waiting for their trucks to be loaded and unloaded, well beyond the previously agreed-upon timeframes.

Driver detention: weekdays vs. weekends

A load scheduled for a pickup at a shipping point or dropoff at the receiver’s end has agreed time limits under which the loading/unloading activity is expected to be completed. However, in practice, drivers are often forced to wait well beyond these time periods when the warehouse is unable to accommodate their scheduled pickup or dropoff time.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) hours of service regulations state that a driver can be on duty for 14 hours following 10 consecutive off-duty hours. Of those 14 hours, a driver can spend a maximum of 11 behind the wheel—which includes time spent in detention.

Using data from a mid-sized trucking company, we set out to explore ways to reduce detention time to free up hours of service that drivers could spend on the road. Our analysis found that drivers, on average, utilize only 60% of their 11 hours per day allowed by law. Our research analyzed driver-stops data at multiple warehouses over a period of time to understand the time spent on loading and unloading.

Additionally, the detention time at warehouses on weekends lasted longer than on weekdays. So, our research question is: Why are weekends slower? Moreover, how much can they help recover the 40% lost utilization on weekends?

Observing operational practices at warehouses helped us understand the challenges that contribute to the delays. Major factors contributing are staffing issues and load scheduling.

Staffing is crucial for smooth operations at loading docks and avoiding bottlenecks. Well-trained staff with experience in operating multiple types of material handling equipment can help reduce such bottlenecks, improving operational efficiency. We observed that warehouses scheduled lesser-trained staff significantly more often on weekends. Making sure that less experienced staff are not disproportionately scheduled at certain times—weekends, for example—would also help.

Load scheduling is another important factor that can cause delays. Warehouses typically operate quite efficiently during peak hours. However, loads that are over-scheduled in those periods to avoid longer, off-peak delays can cause a bottleneck. At times, such loads are pushed to weekends, causing unplanned loads.

Win-win scenario for all

When warehouse operators and trucking companies focus on improving operations these areas, we found that they could reduce weekend detention time by 30%, alleviating a significant portion of the current driver shortage.
Reducing detention time has benefits for all stakeholders. The trucking industry benefits when drivers are available at the right place at the right time to move goods across the country. The drivers benefit when they can drive more—and get paid more. Shippers and receivers benefit from reduced delays, and smooth operations can help them avoid paying detention fees to carriers and have the orders delivered on time.

Every year, approximately 80 students in the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics’ (MIT CTL) Master of Supply Chain Management (SCM) program complete approximately 45 one-year research projects.

These students are early-career business professionals from multiple countries, with two to 10 years of experience in the industry. Most of the research projects are chosen, sponsored by, and carried out in collaboration with multinational corporations. Joint teams that include MIT SCM students and MIT CTL faculty work on real-world problems. In this series, they summarize a selection of the latest SCM research.


The original article can be found at: Supply Chain Management Review