In a new feature on our Bulk Logistics Blog, we’ll review the past month within the bulk freight industry and preview the month to come.

Earlier this month, we published our bulk freight outlook for 2021. And, of course, the issues we projected for the year ahead were front and center in January. The following is a summary of our January observations as well as what we expect in the month ahead.

January 2021 bulk freight

bulk freight january 2021In terms of shipping activity, January was a very strong month. There was no shortage of loads ready to be shipped. The problem is that capacity remains very tight, and there just isn’t enough to handle the volume.

The culprit for this is not a lack of equipment. Many carriers have more than adequate levels of equipment to handle current volumes – in fact, purchases of trucks and equipment are again on the rise. The culprit is, and has been, the driver shortage. There simply aren’t enough drivers to meet the load demands.

As we noted in our ‘outlook’ article, there are several factors contributing to this shortage, including the following:

  • Drivers are retiring or changing careers and there aren’t enough new ones to take their places.
  • Many carriers had to lay off drivers once COVID-19 hit. And, while most carriers have been able to hire these drivers back (and then some), the drivers haven’t always been able or willing to return.
  • Drivers across the industry have missed – and continue to miss – substantial amounts of time due to illness, exposure to an infected person, or home/childcare responsibilities related to the pandemic.
  • Many driver schools and training programs have had to close (often temporarily) or drastically reduce the number of students they can accept due to social distancing requirements. These training disruptions further hamper efforts to get new drivers into the industry.

The bulk transportation industry has been hit especially hard by the driver shortage. Bulk transport is a much smaller niche within the larger trucking world. There is, therefore, a smaller pool of drivers who are available to haul bulk freight. So, when this already-small pool of available drivers is further reduced, capacity can get tight quickly. Unlike dry van, you can’t simply pull a driver from somewhere else and make him or her a bulk driver overnight – there are special skills and driver endorsements required of bulk drivers that other drivers do not have.

Looking ahead to February

As we look ahead, we see no signs of the above landscape changing. We anticipate high load volumes and limited ability to meet the demand. We also sense some trepidation within the industry, with shippers and carriers possibly taking a ‘wait and see’ approach before making any moves on a larger scale then where they’re currently operating.

There are a few factors related to this trepidation. The first is rising fuel prices which warrant close attention. The other is the new presidential administration. Of course, everyone has opinions and theories on how the new administration will affect the trucking industry. But, again, many are waiting to see how things actually play out before deciding on how to move forward.

Until then, we’ll continue to keep a close eye on all things bulk freight related.

 

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