Novel coronavirus pandemic impacting trucking industry in more ways than one, could see increase in drivers

Trucks drive along Interstate 80 in Johnson County on Thursday, April 16, 2020. (Aaron...
Trucks drive along Interstate 80 in Johnson County on Thursday, April 16, 2020. (Aaron Scheinblum/KCRG)(KCRG)
Published: Apr. 16, 2020 at 4:22 PM CDT
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For those that have been on the interstate lately, it might seem like there are more trucks out on the roads than cars.

Leaders at CRST International in Cedar Rapids say they are still meeting demand, but there is a new impact on what they are hauling and also recruiting new drivers. Now they are working to navigate through times that the business of 65 years has never seen before.

"It's scary, quite honestly," said Hugh Ekberg, the President, and CEO of CRST International. "And on top of that because we're in trucking, the role of our company in this country and in this economy, is we have to keep things moving."

As the leader of CRST, Ekberg is in charge of thousands of trucks that are still out on the roads.

"Think of the department stores and retailers. We do work for all of them, well they're all closed. So obviously that freight's not moving, but the freight that's going Walmart and Costco and those essentials that we're all buying up, the rolls of toilet paper, water, cleaning supplies, that has spiked," Ekberg said. "So what's moving has changed, the biggest thing that's changed in the flow is just how we have to operate as we had to change the way we operate in the office with all of our operating teams working differently."

Ekberg says, for a while, hauling those items people really wanted, like toilet paper and cleaning supplies, balanced out the department stores that were closed.

In the last couple of weeks, however, that has changed.

"We are seeing this week and a little bit last week total volume starting to come down," Ekberg said. "We do know that we are entering a recession. We in the trucking industry did get the benefit of that big surge in demand And surge in movement of goods, but it's going to soften. We are going to see overall decline and we're starting to see that show itself a little stronger now."

But Ekberg says that was expected.

"We don't know how deep it goes in terms of the decline, or how quickly it comes back, but we know it's going to go down and it's going to come back up," Ekberg said. "Exactly how it's shaped is yet to be determined."

One aspect of business that has changed is the need for more drivers. Truck drivers have been in demand and at a serious shortage for years. Ekberg said they are expecting people to use truck driving as a way to make money if they have been laid off somewhere else- and have already seen some people inquire.

"We are seeing that truck driver shortage pinch," Ekberg said. "We don't feel it as much right now and I think we'll feel it less in the near term, but it'll always be there until we continue to attract more into this industry."

And in order to keep people interested in truck driving in the long term rather than just the short term, Ekberg said they are working to explain the benefits for those that stay with CRST.

"What we are doing much better now is making sure a driver understands when they start with CRST, they may start in one of those entry-level type driving roles which aren't going to be the most attractive," Ekberg said. "But by staying with us, they give themselves opportunities to move into the better lifestyle, higher-paying position that exist across our company."

Ekberg says the key now is to stay positive and prepare for the future.

"We need to make sure that when the recovery starts to form, we've positioned ourselves to be, as I'm saying to my team, be the first out of the starting blocks," Ekberg said. "Because we've got a clear direction and a clear opportunity view of where we need to go."