Marlon, 38, is a truck driver in Tulare County who took part in the study. Photo by James Year

published on September 12, 2023 - 1:44 PM
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When it comes to hauling Central Valley produce, the biggest peeve of agricultural truck drivers is having to drive 55.

That is just one area of improvement to ensure California’s supply of ag truckers, according to a new study that also found that higher ag shipping costs in 2021 after the pandemic was more of a trucker retention problem than a driver shortage.

The report by researchers with the UC Berkeley Labor Center is the first in-depth look at the labor market for agricultural truck drivers in California and the first study of this workforce anywhere in the U.S. in nearly 30 years.

The motivation for the study by Steve Viscelli and Eric Balcom was a 56-87% increase in refrigerated freight costs from Q2 2020 to Q4 2021 after the pandemic.

“These increases in quarterly averages understate the impact on some shippers. Shippers of highly perishable produce—such as berries, citrus, and fresh vegetables—and some other crops reported paying double to move their products compared to just a year or two earlier,” according to the study, funded by state agencies at the behest of agricultural shippers.

In June, July and September 2022, the researchers interviewed more than 100 drivers on the job in the San Joaquin Valley and Salinas, in English and Spanish. Co-author Viscelli found that better efforts in recruiting and training drivers could ease high turnover rates and improve job satisfaction.

“Safe and experienced truck drivers are the foundation of U.S. supply chains,” said Viscelli. “I hope this research helps to bring their perspective more fully into the conversation about how to better retain experienced drivers and create successful career paths for the next generation.”

As the study sought to root out the problem from the perspective of drivers, the single most frequent complaint they brought up was California’s 55-mph truck speed limit. Specifically, drivers said split speed limits — trucks limited to 55 mph but motorists up to 70 mph — create unsafe conditions.

“When you got that much of a speed difference, and they are wondering how come cars hit trucks all the time? Well, that’s why. I’m going 55, they are going 70, they go around and pass this car and hit me in the back, it’s not my fault. The speed limit ought to be the same for all vehicles,” according to one trucker interviewed.

Another problem was training and recruitment. New drivers are likely to attend training school for several weeks and then spend weeks or months out on the road with a trainer. Drivers are often required to sign a training contract that indebts them to the employer unless they stay with the employer for a year, according to the report.

“Our training system is organized backward,” Viscelli said. “Drivers should be trained locally and employed locally at the start of their careers. Difficult, dangerous long-haul work should then be the well-paid choice of safe and experienced drivers.”

Waiting for loads to be ready on an uncertain harvest schedule was another problem for truckers, who say they sometimes wait up to 10 hours to pick up their loads.

Among the report’s recommendations:

The state should work with agricultural trucking companies, local training programs, and community colleges to expand and create opportunities for local training that can lead to local jobs that give workers more time behind the wheel in local environments. These programs should be modeled as apprenticeships rather than the “boot camp” style of many current programs.

California should review the safety impacts of split speed limits for cars and trucks. Truck drivers complained that having to drive more slowly than the cars with which they share the road creates a safety issue.

The state should also consider adding new public rest areas or expanding existing facilities to allow truckers to find safe places to park and take breaks more easily.

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