Doug Stoiber, vice president of produce transportation operations at L&M Transportation Services, Raleigh, N.C., discusses ways produce companies can successfully compete with other shippers for the shrinking number of trucks in the U.S. during a workshop at Fresh Summit 2012.
Doug Stoiber, vice president of produce transportation operations at L&M Transportation Services, Raleigh, N.C., discusses ways produce companies can successfully compete with other shippers for the shrinking number of trucks in the U.S. during a workshop at Fresh Summit 2012.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Other than increasing freight rates, the best way for produce companies to secure the trucks they need when they need them, according to a transportation specialist, comes down to one word that Aretha Franklin taught everyone to spell: Respect.

Doug Stoiber, vice president of produce transportation operations for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Transportation Services, told attendees at a Fresh Summit 2012 work session that the U.S. needs about 111,000 more truck drivers to reach optimum levels for freight movement.

There is little hope of much relief in the short-term, Stoiber said, partly because of the demographics of truckers.

The average age of commercial truck drivers is 48. Less than 10% of those with commercial driver’s licenses are younger than 30, and current law prohibits anyone younger than 21 from having a CDL. President Obama wants to allow states to have the right to lower the age to 18.

And then there are the baby boomers, beginning this year the nation’s largest generation started hitting 65 and retiring at the rate of 10,000 every day.

But those numbers aren’t the only issue when it comes to produce competing with other freight. Dry freight rates are lower than produce, but risks are lower, too.

When a trucker picks up a load of produce he has liability potential until the receiver accepts the load. Also, Stoiber said a truck can cross the country for at least $1,500 less by not using the refer unit.

But Stoiber and more than a dozen commercial drivers in the audience said more respectful treatment of drivers would go a long way in helping produce shippers attract drivers.

“Truckers have been viewed as obstacles to doing business instead of partners in the supply chain,” Stoiber said.

He said to make produce a preferred load shippers should be as generous as possible with rates.

“Think in terms of price per consumer unit instead of $1,000 per load. That will give you a different perspective,” he suggested. “But loyalty and respect are so important to these drivers; the transaction doesn’t end with a good rate.”

Stoiber pointed to a set of best practices for shippers, receivers and carriers that the North American Produce Transportation Working Group released earlier this year as a guide on making fresh produce a preferred load. Tips such as decreasing detention time when loading and unloading, and allowing drivers to watch loading are best practices that drivers are particularly responsive to, he said.

The best practices will be regularly reviewed and updated as federal regulations and other factors change the way truckers are allowed to operate, said Stoiber, who is a member of the group. The best practices are free on the working group’s website at www.naptwg.org.