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Trucking industry adapts to its challenges as MTA convention, show return to Peoria Civic Center

The Mid-West Truckers Association is holding its convention and Truck & Trailer Show at the Peoria Civic Center this weekend for the first time in three years.
Mid-West Truckers Association
The Mid-West Truckers Association is holding its convention and Truck & Trailer Show at the Peoria Civic Center this weekend for the first time in three years.

Labor shortages, potential clean energy changes, rising fuel costs, supply chain delays. These are some of the major challenges the truck driving industry has faced in recent years.

With the Peoria Civic Center hosting the 58th Mid-West Truckers Association’s convention and Truck & Trailer show for the first time in three years, MTA Executive Vice President Don Schaefer says the industry has done its best to adapt in that time.

Don Schaefer, Mid-West Truckers Association Executive Vice President
Joe Deacon
Don Schaefer, Mid-West Truckers Association Executive Vice President

“A lot has changed in three years in the business. We've weathered a lot of storms,” said Schaefer. “But we've also at the same time shown that people kind of give a little bit of respect to truckers more than they did three years ago, because when everything else was shut down, truck operators were out there moving.”

Schaefer said the biggest obstacle in the trucking industry right now is a depleted work force.

“The Number One issue in the trucking industry is finding good drivers – and finding drivers period – because, the laws have gotten stricter, and for the better, from a safety standpoint,” he said, noting a better focus on alcohol and drug testing and on driving records is improving the quality of drivers.

But he said the labor demands are higher than ever.

“So much in terms of goods are being moved on the nation's highways, as well as other forms of transportation. But we don't have enough trucks, we don't have enough drivers, we don't have enough mechanics. All them play a part in terms of moving everything,” said Schaefer.

Schaefer said trucking companies have started working more closely with driver schools and community college training programs to get more people into the field, adding that entry-level truckers can earn around $60,000 a year and experienced drivers could make twice that.

“It depends on what you're hauling, who you're hauling for. It depends on what kind of credentials you have,” he said. “Do you want to be long haul? Do you want to be short haul and be home every night? Do you want to haul hazardous materials? They all play a part in it. The demand is there that has pushed the salary level way up.”

He added one idea that may be gaining traction is lowering the minimum age for interstate truckers.

“A lot of people in the industry think that's a good idea, because we lose so many people who could potentially become a truck driver – because of the fact that you get out of high school, ‘how old are you?’ ’18.’ ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘Well, I'd like to be a truck driver.’ ‘Well, come back when you're 21,’” explained Schaefer.

“So in the meantime, between 18 and 21, they learned another trade – maybe a plumber, electrician, construction, computer programmer, or what have you – and we've lost them by the time they're 21, We'll never get them, so we lose a lot of that potential. We’ve got to find a way to make it more appealing.”

Schaefer said the industry anticipates seeing more and more regulation aimed at making trucking more climate-friendly.

“I think everyone agrees that sooner or later we're going to be at that point where we're going to be looking at alternative fuels as the means to move most of the nation's goods,” said Schaefer, adding the federal government is working with manufacturers to develop a “clean truck.”

“A clean truck can be anything from running on hydrogen, it could be a truck that's running on electric, it could be a combination of different types of fuels or power sources,” said Schaefer. “It's very logical, because I think just like everything else, we know that carbon-based fuels are here but they're being phased out.”

With the cost of diesel spiking over the past year, Schaefer said trucking companies are urging drivers to do their best in maximizing fuel economy and getting better mileage.

“For a truck that maybe gets six miles to the gallon, if you were to get a half-mile per gallon improvement in how you drive, that's 17-18%,” he said. “When you buy fuel by the truckload, in other words you buy fuel by a tank or wagon load of 7,000-8,000 gallons at a time, that adds up. So the companies are very cognizant of that.”

Schaefer stressed that delays in the supply chain over the past several years cannot be pinned on trucking alone, noting several steps are involved in delivery of any given product.

“It goes from the ship that goes from China to Long Beach, California, where it hops on a train. It comes to Joliet, for example, where it's offloaded, then a truck picks them up and takes them 500-600 miles in the region,” he said. “Here in the Midwest, we also deal with the (Illinois) River; we haul a lot of grain, a lot of fertilizer.

“All these different modes of transportation have all been challenged in the last three years by COVID, and they're all just at the point now of digging out of the issues that have haunted them. There's a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel right now. I think we're starting to see that things are improving.”

The convention and consumer show are part of what’s expected to be a busy weekend at the Civic Center, with around 10,000 people anticipated to pass through the building for the events and the Hot Wheels Monster Trucks Live shows in the arena on Saturday and Sunday.

The two-day MTA Truck & Trailer Show continues Saturday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., with free admission.

“Anyone can walk in, and we do we encourage families bring the kids down, let them see what trucks are like it and get in a truck,” said Schaefer. “It's really a unique opportunity that doesn't happen too often.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.