Monday, September 6, 2021

Some trucking businesses warn that the country’s shortage of drivers could lead to fuel shortages and higher prices at the pump

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Some trucking businesses warn that the country’s shortage of drivers could lead to fuel shortages and higher prices at the pump —Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo

A dearth of workers willing to drive trucks has become so severe in the US that some fleet managers are petitioning to let more foreign operators into the country.

Truck driving has always been a job with high turnover and a scarcity of labour. But the shortage has deepened since the pandemic, as training schools closed, some drivers quit and a stricter drug and alcohol testing system led to about 60,000 dismissals, said Bob Costello, chief economist at American Trucking Associations.

The shortfall is “the worst ever”, he said. Certain smaller trucking companies are now imploring the US government to loosen or hasten visa approvals to alleviate strained supply networks. At Petroleum Marketing Group, a fuel distributor to more than 1,300 petrol stations on the US east coast, vice-president of operations André LeBlanc said he had gone “on the warpath”to warn governors, senators and the US transportation and labour departments that the lack of drivers could see fuel shortages and increased prices at the pump. He said officials could ease the situation by speeding up approval of EB-3 permanent work visas, which allow employers to bring in those “performing work for which qualified workers are not available in the US”.

The scheme has an annual quota of 40,000. “I don’t think this is going to get better, but we have a solution and I’m trying to get somebody to listen to me,”LeBlanc said. Andrew Owens, chair of the board of Oregon Trucking Associations, said the idea of turning to foreign drivers was “picking up steam”. He is organising about a dozen trucking companies to meet federal lawmakers to “plead our case on just expediting EB-3s”. 

Part of their pitch will be to try to get truck drivers on the US Department of Labor’s “Schedule A”list. This designation, which identifies occupations deemed to be facing a shortage of qualified individuals, could shave 10-12 months off an EB-3 process that typically takes around 18 months, said Jose Gomez-Urquiza, chief executive of Visa Solutions, which places foreign workers in the US transport industry.

Another option would be to hire seasonal truck drivers on H-2B visas, which allow foreign workers to take temporary jobs that are difficult to fill domestically, Gomez-Urquiza said. Washington could ease pressure on supply chains by exempting truck drivers from the visas’60,000-person yearly quota, said Anda Malescu, managing partner at the Miami business and immigration law firm Malescu Law.

It has already raised the cap on H-2B visas by 22,000 for this fiscal year. LeBlanc surmised that officials found the concept of bringing in workers unpalatable. One asked him: “You really want me to ask to try and bring in people from outside the US when we have so many people that are unemployed?”Malescu said trucking companies were most interested in drivers from Mexico and Canada, as their driving licences were recognised in the US.

The US Department of Transportation said that it was “actively engaged in increasing the availability of qualified long-haul truck drivers”. Virginia-based Petroleum Marketing Group has only 26 of the 74 drivers it needs, LeBlanc said. “We’re out there recruiting and we’re not getting any bites, not even a nibble, ”he said.

Additional reporting by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in New York

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