More than two weeks after recreational vehicle transport carriers gathered to discuss a driver shortage, some area manufacturers have increased their pay rates for drivers.
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association on April 15 called a meeting at the RV/MH Hall of Fame where they encouraged transport firms to place ads recruiting drivers on www.findtherightjob.com, a national employment website. The RVIA estimated there were 25,000 to 30,000 finished units sitting around the Elkhart area awaiting delivery to dealers around the country and said about 2,000 more drivers were needed to eliminate a four- to six-week backlog.
But Shawn Shelt, manager at Southeastern Trailer Transport in Elkhart, said that solution failed to address the underlying issue behind the shortage: drivers aren't paid enough.
Some of the manufacturers he works with this week increased their transport rates, and Southeastern Trailer Transport is passing the entire increase on to drivers, Shelt said.
"They're making adjustments in the pay scale that more accurately reflect the cost of operating in today's trucking industry," Shelt said. "The response we're getting from drivers who call in has been very positive."
Sami Colby, owner of Hoosier RV Transport in Bristol, said at least one of her client manufacturers has raised transport pay rates this week.
"I've said all along that that they've never paid enough for drivers to make a good living at this," said Colby, who was a driver for 30 years before becoming a transport firm owner. "The whole thing has been the pay. Manufacturers this week opened up their purse strings and it's going to help."
Shelt said manufacturers have told him that the higher rates are only temporary. Colby said manufacturers need to make them permanent, even in the fall when RV shipments slow down.
Neither Shelt nor Colby would identify the RV makers who have upped their transport pay rates or disclose the size of the increases.
Marion Schrock, president of Wakarusa-based Horizon Transport, one of Elkhart County's largest RV transport firms, said he doesn't believe low pay is causing the shortage. He said there's a shortage every year at this time. The only reason it's worse this year is the industry lost eight shipping days because of severe winter weather, he said.
Schrock said he doesn't deny that pay rates might need to increase, but the money is just one of several factors. He points to U.S. Department of Transportation regulations that became more stringent in 2010, and poor treatment of transport drivers by dealers.
"It would solve about 60 percent of the driver shortage issue if drivers were treated properly and with dignity," Schrock said. "A lot of dealerships are too greedy and ungrateful for the people that bring them units to sell."
Schrock estimated that insufficient pay only accounts for about 8 to 10 percent of the shortage.
"I can show you on paper where there is money to be made," he said. "Last year I had three drivers who grossed $150,000. They were on the road seven days a week, including holidays. There is money to be made."
Schrock said he hopes a new transportation committee that the RVIA is forming will send a message to its "sister" organization, the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association, stressing the need for dealers to treat drivers better. Many drivers resent having to wash the RV before a dealer will accept it, having to wait several hours while the dealer inspects it for flaws, and having to keep a unit over the weekend if a delivery time on Friday afternoon is missed.
"Dealers do not understand, nor do they want to understand, what a driver goes through," Schrock said.
Former RV transport driver Jeff Callan said he was skeptical that the higher pay rates will last. Callan hauled RVs from 2006 until the recession of 2008. He bought a new 2006 Chevy 1-ton "dually," meaning it has two sets of rear wheels for extra pulling power, but had it repossessed when he could no longer afford the payments after the RV industry crashed.
RV transport drivers deserve more stable pay rates, he said, noting that likely will never happen unless drivers organize and collectively bargain.
"They can raise and lower them at will," said Callan. "This week they're up... but next week or two weeks or a month from now they can knock it back down, but they've got you sucked in. They have all the control. Transport companies have no control and drivers certainly don't."