It had been a challenging day on the road and Desi Wade was ready for dinner. But as he pulled into a truck stop, Wade encountered a familiar frustration in the overstressed industry.
The parking lot was jammed with other 18-wheelers, leaving just one narrow spot that the 50-year-old secured after several minutes of maneuvering.
Scant parking is only one of the sore points in U.S. trucking, which moves more than $12 trillion worth of freight each year and has become the latest embodiment of the supply chain problems in a holiday season overshadowed by limited product availability and rising prices.
Some trucking industry leaders cite a national shortage of drivers as causing the troubles, but Wade says drivers’ top concerns are difficult working environments, inadequate pay and logistics mismanagement.
“There’s not a driver shortage, there’s just no motivation to do it,” said Wade, who owns a small fleet of trucks based in Atlanta. “You’ve really got to make the wages and job appealing and profitable.”
On top of scarce parking and volatile fuel prices, drivers have to contend with stressful traffic conditions and meager food options that make healthy eating impossible on the road.
The biggest issue is probably “detention time,” jargon for the mostly unpaid hours truckers burn waiting around at ports and warehouses — which they say has grown especially bad as COVID-19 has convulsed supply chains.
“It’s a mentally and physically challenging profession that takes you away from your family, your home for long periods of time,” Wade said. “So what motivates someone to do that?”
Wade spent a recent day at a distribution center waiting for cargo to be loaded onto his truck. He ended up leaving with only $150 of the $1,200 he expected, and the cargo was moved back into the warehouse.
A former army firefighter, Wade — who traveled with a reporting team over two days through three southeastern states — radiates positivity from his fire engine red tractor.
He is in his element coaching junior drivers, bantering with warehouse administrators and hosting fellow truckers on virtual meetings from his smartphone headset. He grins when describing trips with his kids and grandchildren aboard the 18-wheeler.
This journey began inauspiciously, with Wade arriving early in the morning only to discover his truck was unable to leave.
His 37,000-pound load had sunk into mud, and the resulting $450 tow job put Wade in a financial hole and left him scrambling for a replacement cargo after a scheduled pickup time became impossible.
Desi Wade drives his truck cab out of a repair bay at Petro Truck Stop in Atlanta. | AFP-JIJI
Other little things went wrong. Midmorning, Wade was forced to phone a higher-up when a junior driver got the runaround at a warehouse. The following day, traffic was slowed by a motorcade for U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to South Carolina.
“You have some snags, but it’s life,” said Wade. “You’ve got to make it happen.”
The trip, nine days before Christmas, coincided with moves by the Biden administration to accelerate commercial driver licensing, recruit more women and formerly incarcerated people as drivers and undertake a study of detention time.
Wade was skeptical, noting the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Congress passed this year did not address parking.
“It’s underwhelming,” he said. “For us to operate safely, we’ve got to have our rest.”
The infrastructure package also established a pilot program, controversial within trucking, to hire up to 3,000 drivers between the ages of 18 and 20 to carry interstate loads.
But someone that age “might not have mental maturity to deal with all the things they’re going to encounter,” Wade said. “I think it could really be dangerous.”
He has been looking to hire another driver for his four-truck company, but said he must compete in a tight labor market with companies such as DoorDash and Lyft.
Wade’s views reflect his takeaways from his military career, which came to a “screeching halt” after a speedy rise to a leadership role in the Pentagon’s firefighting operations in Afghanistan.
In 2011, Wade was arrested for taking nearly $100,000 in bribes from a military contractor and ultimately served 20 months in prison.
“Everything was so fast moving, I was chasing money and didn’t really have any stability,” said Wade, whose marriage was also falling apart at the time. “I had to take a minute, pause, really evaluate what’s important in life.”
After serving his time, Wade returned to Georgia, initially working as an electrician before turning to trucking. He bought his first truck in 2015 after forming his company a year earlier.
He now earns a six-figure salary, and described trucking as “a profession in which you really can turn your life around under a second chance.”
Wade plans to drive for another five years while building a cooperative with other truck drivers. He would like his kids to work in transportation, but advises an “exit strategy” if they drive.
Driving is “high risk, high reward,” Wade said. “You don’t want to stay behind the wheel forever.”
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