Three months ago this week, recreational vehicle industry leaders gathered at the RV/MH Hall of Fame to discuss a serious problem.
Approximately 25,000 to 35,000 finished RVs were parked around the Elkhart area, awaiting transport to dealerships around the country, but an estimated 2,000 new drivers were needed to move them. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association encouraged RV transport firms to sign up with a new employment website.
Since then, the shortage has lessened but still exists, transport firms and industry officials said.
"It’s gotten better," said Dianne Farrell, vice president of government affairs with RVIA. "We figure the backlog should be gone 90 percent by the end of July and 100 percent by the end of August."
The backlog is lessening partly because it always does by late summer, once the spring and early summer sales season has peaked. But Farrell said a significant number of firms started using the website. The Internet spread local news coverage of the driver shortage. And RV makers started paying temporarily higher transport fees.
"It’s definitely improved," said Andy Swain, office manager at Indiana Transport. He said there is still a shortage but it’s not as severe. Their inventory is now less than 500 vehicles, down from about 1,600 three months ago. It now takes one to two weeks to deliver a vehicle, down from four weeks.
Swain credited the higher pay, which increased typically by about 20 cents per mile.
"We did with it what we thought was right,” Swain said. “It all went to the drivers.”
Sharon Coleman, a recruiter at Synergy RV Transport Inc., said she also is still looking for drivers until their backlog of units awaiting delivery is cleared.
"We still probably have 300 to 400 units sitting in our yard,“ Coleman said. ”That’s quite a bit. But at the busiest times we had 500 to 600.“
Coleman agreed press coverage of the shortage “created some interest because people were seeing it online. We were getting calls from people around the country.”
She said the company signed a few of those callers, and a few more from a job fair it conducted that targeted military veterans. A referral bonus incentive also brought in new drivers.
"And we put on a May and June spring bonus as an incentive for drivers to continue turning their wheels a little more instead of taking some time off,” Coleman said.
Farrell said the industry is taking a comprehensive look at the issue to prevent such severe shortages in the future. At its June board meeting, the RVIA formed a Transportation Coalition to be chaired by B.J. Thompson, whose Elkhart-based public relations firm, Bj Thompson Associates, works closely with the industry.
"Our mission is to get ahead of the driver shortage in 2015," Farrell said.
The coalition will conduct its organizational meeting in early August at the RV/MH Hall of Fame. While the group has yet to finalize its goals and mission, Farrell said it will advocate for transport carriers in Washington.
For example, it will lobby federal regulators to exempt a small subset of RV transport drivers from a rule requiring them to have a commercial driver’s license. The industry thinks it’s unfair that an RV’s potential weight is used to determine if a driver needs a CDL, but RVs don’t carry people, stored cargo or liquids in their holding tanks while being transported, Farrell said.
Another example is a rule proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that would require transport drivers to log their miles and rest times electronically rather than on paper as most do now. Farrell said the coalition will lobby to preserve the paper option. She said drivers, who are typically independent contractors, would have to pay for these devices, and they could range in cost from $800 to $3,000. She added most drivers use their pick-up trucks for other things, so she isn’t sure how that would affect the electronic records.
Joe Braun, vice president of Wakarusa-based Horizon Transport Inc., said he is "thrilled" with the coalition’s formation and he plans to participate in the effort. He said his and other transport firms have pooled their money to hire a lobbyist to fight the electronic logging regulation. The public comment period ended in late May.
Braun said the driver shortage, while better than it was in May, will reoccur next year unless changes are made.
"Every transporter faces the same immovable obstacle, the apparent impossibility of sustaining a fleet throughout the lean winter months that is sufficient to serve the industry’s explosive spring demand,” Braun said.
Braun said the industry needs to somehow flatten out the delivery curve so that drivers have work to do throughout the year rather than a bottleneck of units needing delivery from late March to late June. One possibility is having manufacturers offer dealers incentives to take delivery of units earlier in the year, before sales pick up. Dealers would have to incur higher interest costs on the inventory they have financed, but perhaps manufacturers could lower their wholesale prices enough to offset those costs, Braun said.
He also would like the seasonal premiums manufacturers offered this summer to be permanent.
"We’re lobbying hard to keep them around," he said with a laugh, referring to the higher rates. "They certainly made recruiting and retaining drivers easier."
At that May meeting, industry leaders and transport firms urged dealers to treat drivers better. Some dealers force drivers to wait hours before they’ll accept delivery, or are unreasonable about requirements to have the vehicles washed. That message seems to have reached dealers. In his monthly column in the May issue of RV Executive Today magazine, Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association chair Jeff Hirsch wrote drivers "aren’t eager to deliver units to dealerships where their efforts aren’t appreciated."
"My suggestion is that we remember these transporters are valued partners,” Hirsch wrote. “Here’s a chance to build trust in order to increase speed and lower cost.”