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Last week the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals released its 24th annual State of Logistics Report. Last year, business logistics costs were once again 8.5 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the same level they hit in 2011, the new report says. That means freight logistics was growing at about the same rate as the GDP. Inventory carrying costs and transportation costs rose "quite modestly" in 2012, said the report's author Rosalyn Wilson. Year-over-year, inventory carrying costs (interest, taxes/obsolescence/depreciation/insurance, and warehousing) increased 4% y/y as inventory levels climbed to a new peak. Meanwhile, transportation costs were up 3% y/y predominantly from an increase of 2.9% in overall truck transportation costs.

This "new normal" is characterized by slow growth (GDP growth of 2.5% to 4.0%), higher unemployment, slower job creation (which will primarily be filled by part-time workers due to higher healthcare costs), increased productivity of the current workforce from investment in machinery/technology (and not human capital), and a less reliable or predictable freight service (as volumes rise but capacity does not increase fast enough to meet demand). Wilson noted that slow growth and lackluster job creation has caused the global economy to wallow in mixed levels of recovery. "This month will mark the fourth year of recovery after the Great Recession, and you're probably thinking that here has not been much to celebrate," said Wilson. "Is it time to ask, 'Is this the new normal?'"

For logisticians, the "new normal" means less predictable and less reliable freight services as volumes rise but capacity does not. In areas such as ocean transport, Wilson said, this can mean slower transit times. "I do believe the economy and logistics sector will slowly regain sustainable momentum, but that we'll still experience unevenness in growth rates," Wilson predicted.

For cutting-edge logistics managers, however, the current environment also means great opportunities to secure increasingly tight capacity in an era of shrewd rate bargaining. This is partly because the trucking industry, in particular, is facing a lid on capacity because of higher qualifications for drivers while top carriers are becoming increasingly selective in their choice of customers and in the allocation of their assets.

"Truck capacity is still walking a fine line—few shortages, but industry-high utilization rates," Wilson explained. Truckload capacity continues to remain stagnant (with the majority of new equipment orders for replacement or dedicated fleets and the copious amount of truckload capacity sapping regulations coming down the pipeline) and the assumption that freight demand will continue to modestly increase (as the economy continues to muddle along at low single digit GDP growth in combination with population growth), a less predictable and less reliable freight market is developing (as described in the "new normal").

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Today we received some unexpected good news in the United States as the unemployment rate fell to 8.6%.  In Canada the news wasn’t as good as the unemployment rate increased to 7.4 percent.  Without counting those people who have given up looking for work or who are underemployed (e.g. performing a job below their level of expertise and education at a wage inferior to what they should be earning), there are about 14 million people unemployed in North America (e.g. 13.3 million in the United States and 1.3 million in Canada). 

FTR Associates estimated that there was a shortage of 200,000 drivers in the United States in the first quarter of 2011.  How does one explain the fact that out of a pool of 13.3 million unemployed people (plus millions more if you include those who are underemployed), we cannot find 100,000 to 200,000 individuals to fill these jobs?

Here are some thoughts on this apparent anomaly.  There were 3.2 million commercial drivers in the United States in 2008, including 1.8 million heavy haul or tractor-trailer drivers, according to the U.S. Labor Department.  By May 2010, the number of big rig drivers had dropped 18.4 percent to about 1.5 million.  In other words, there are 300,000 drivers that left the labour force that should be available to fill the available jobs.  Why is it so hard to convince them to come back to work?

One of the most frequently mentioned reasons is compensation.  In the United States, experienced truck drivers can make $50,000 a year at some truckload carriers.  According to a BLS survey, the average wage was $39,450 in 2010 while the median wage was $37,770.  The survey indicated that 75% earn less than $47,000 per annum. 

The trucking industry has a long term practice of paying its drivers by the mile.  While there is certain fairness to this approach since it correlates directly with the amount of miles driven and hours worked, it also injects a level of uncertainty into the driver’s weekly pay package.  Inconsistent load availability translates into inconsistent pay. 

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