Meet the San Diego Truckers Who Are Overwhelmed with Work, Due to Supply Chain Issues

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John Ehlers woke up ready to drive after spending the night in his freight truck at the Golden Acorn Casino & Travel Center in Campo, about an hour east of the San Diego coast. Wind turbines swirled in high winds around the truck stop, where many drivers had already started heading west on Interstate 8 at the first sign of dawn.

“They’re going to blow up my phone,” said Ehlers, a 65-year-old man from east Texas, explaining how quickly he can find work using several trucker apps. “You have people calling you in five minutes. Everyone is hiring.

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Right after sunrise, truck driver John Ehlers prepares his cab before exiting the large parking lot after a night’s rest at the Golden Acorn Casino & Travel Center on Friday, October 15, 2021 in Campo, California. Ehlers is on his way to San Diego to pick up a load of medical supplies that he will deliver to Memphis, Tennessee.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Truckers are in high demand as the increase in consumer spending exceeds the ability of retailers to keep items on shelves and in showrooms. A web of supply chain problems, exacerbated by COVID-19 and distribution bottlenecks, has created one-time shortages of everything from new cars and furniture to groceries and paint for the House.

As dockers at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports scramble to load and unload freight trucks, wait times for commercial vehicles at the Tijuana-San Diego border have skyrocketed.

New warehouses are now popping up in places like Otay Mesa faster than companies can hire drivers. Experts say this is largely because many truckers left the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic and have yet to return.

Semi-trucks exit after refueling at Pilot gas station in Otay Mesa on Thursday, October 14, 2021.

Semi-trucks exit after refueling at Pilot gas station in Otay Mesa on Thursday, October 14, 2021.

(Sandy Huffaker / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

The average truck driver is between 50 and 60 years old; few young people are getting into the business, said Tracy “Ty” Manzo, a former truck driver and now CEO of San Diego-based Sutra Research & Analytics.

“It’s a tough business,” she said. “There are certainly a lot of benefits, but the glory days of trucking faded into the ’80s and’ 90s.”

For the drivers who stayed, business is now booming.

George Stone ran his engine around 7 a.m. at the Campo truck stop, preparing to deliver a forklift and other construction equipment to the National City marine terminal, where it was destined for Hawaii. He said he had been hauling trucks for 34 years and was pocketing about $ 60,000 in one year.

George Stone rested at the Golden Acorn Casino & Travel Center for the night before leaving at sunrise.

George Stone rested at the Golden Acorn Casino & Travel Center for the night before heading out for sunrise on Friday October 15, 2021 in Campo, California. Stone transports heavy equipment from Pennsylvania to National City.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I haven’t slowed down at all since the start of the pandemic,” the 57-year-old Pennsylvanian said. “Even when the whole country closed its doors, I stayed busy. You have to adapt. This is how the country is.

Experts say many older drivers have retired for fear of contracting coronavirus at work. Not Susan Scott. At a truck stop in Otay Mesa on Thursday, Scott, 49, her husband and their 6-year-old chihuahua, Piper, were on their way to buy fresh fruit and candy in Santa Maria.

“I’m not too worried about COVID,” the Texan said. “I’m not getting vaccinated either. My doctor doesn’t believe it.

She said the family brings home more than $ 200,000 per truck per year. She only recently got into the business after losing her job as a security guard, but her husband, Clifford, has been driving for three decades.

“I like him. You can see the world,” she said, quickly noting the downside: “I raised four kids without him. He was on the road.

Susan Scott, 49, of Beaumont, Texas, in her truck at the Pilot gas station in Otay Mesa on Thursday, October 14, 2021.

Susan Scott, 49, of Beaumont, Texas, in her truck at the Pilot gas station in Otay Mesa on Thursday, October 14, 2021.

(Sandy Huffaker / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

According to experts, one of the main reasons for the increase in demand is that people are spending less on restaurants and vacations and more on renovating their residences for remote work. As international supply chains have struggled to recover from bottlenecks, demand for Amazon-style distribution has exploded.

“You had a big change in consumption when people realized they could work from home if they bought a new laptop and a new LCD screen and a new printer,” said Paul Bingham, economist and director of transport consulting at IHS Markit Economics, a private data and analytics company.

Stimulus checks and rising house prices have also fueled consumer fervor, he added. “Even though I get the same amount, I feel pretty rich because my house has gone up 20% in value. All this home delivery of goods, it’s like people are getting ready for Christmas every month.

As demand for trucking grows, Amazon, along with physical businesses, has increasingly turned drivers away from long-haul trucking jobs, said Alan Gin, professor of economics at the University of San Diego. He pointed out that the trucking industry was already short of 70,000 drivers nationwide in 2018, according to the American Trucking Association.

At sunrise, a truck driver exits the large parking lot after resting at the Golden Acorn Casino & Travel Center.

At sunrise, a truck driver exits the large parking lot after resting at the Golden Acorn Casino & Travel Center on Friday, October 15, 2021 in Campo, California.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It’s more of a localized job,” he said, of driving for Amazon. “You don’t have to be that far from your family, so I think people who want to keep driving are really drawn to that.”

Tamika Handy dropped off a load of office supplies at Otay Mesa this week using her recently purchased box truck. While the vehicle only has about a quarter of the carrying capacity of a traditional freight truck, she said, it is cheaper and more versatile.

“The big rigs have all this tax and this upkeep,” she said, with her 12-year-old dog, Pinchy, in the cockpit. “It requires little maintenance and we make a lot of money. “

At the same time, international trade flows have encouraged companies to relocate from Asia to Mexico, especially along the Tijuana-San Diego border. This includes furniture companies, as well as auto and electronics manufacturers. More recently, Amazon has set up huge warehouses in San Diego as well as Tijuana.

“In Baja alone, we have over 100 companies waiting for a building,” said Pedro Montejo Peterson, who heads the Maquiladora and Export Industry Association. “All the companies that left Mexico and went to China in 2008 are coming back.

While this is good for the regional economy, wait times at the Otay Mesa commercial truck crossing have increased.

Before the pandemic, drivers had to wait about an hour, crossing the border three times a day, Montejo said. Now they are on only one trip, with border crossing delays of eight to four hours.

Francis Gagnon, from Quebec Canada, walks away from his platform after securing the back door on Thursday, October 14, 2021.

Francis Gagnon, from Quebec Canada, walks away from his platform after securing the back door on Thursday, October 14, 2021.

(Sandy Huffaker / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

All this work attracts people like Francis Gagnon, 53, from Quebec. He was dropping off a cargo of tools in San Diego on Thursday, but said he was eager to collect cargo south of the border as travel restrictions eased.

“The last time I am going to Tijuana,” said the French speaker, who has been driving big trucks since the age of 16. “Lots of fun there.”


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