COO of Zonar, pioneering smart fleet management solutions in vocational, pupil, mass transit and commercial trucking industries.
In its annual survey, the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) ranked the state of the economy as the fifth-highest industry concern. Fleets are grappling with skyrocketing inflation, equipment and parts shortages, high diesel prices, driver shortages and wage pressures. Average marginal operating costs per hour jumped from $66.47 in 2021 to $74.65 in 2022, according to ATRI’s August 2022 operational costs report. Given the current economic uncertainty, the industry may not have enough time for a complete supply chain recovery to shore up its economic security.
Consequently, fleet managers should protect existing assets. As the COO of a company that provides fleet management solutions, I’ve observed how fleet managers maximize the efficiency of their vehicles, equipment, technology, data and resources. There are valuable lessons for all industries to learn regarding asset utilization and people management during periods of economic uncertainty.
Predictive maintenance could lengthen asset cycles.
During the pandemic, the supply chain was significantly disrupted, which led to scarce parts in some industries, especially semiconductor chips. This likely contributed to reports of truck manufacturers canceling orders for vehicles. With the limited availability of new trucks, my company saw fleets operating older equipment for longer periods, resulting in more frequent breakdowns that delayed product deliveries and disrupted normal maintenance schedules. As of August 2022, the average age of a truck-tractor unit was 5.7 years, the highest in over a decade. Miles driven per year were down nearly 11% from the last survey, which may suggest that fleets were not able to drive as far and/or that they experienced lengthier downtime due to outdated parts and maintenance needs.
Nobody was prepared for this level of disruption, but unprecedented events often lead to the discovery or development of new operational efficiencies. Extending asset lifespan is now on many managers’ minds. I believe the solution lies in implementing proactive maintenance programs to diagnose issues sooner and avoid progressive engine damage, service costs and downtime.
Every part affects the whole.
Maintenance that is proactive and predictive requires visibility and planning. Every part affects the whole. Any single piece of improperly maintained equipment can cripple the machine itself and possibly an entire operation. Maintaining consistency with pre- and post-trip inspections, and requiring additional asset-specific inspections, can decrease the likelihood of a malfunctioning or broken asset that costs time and money to repair. This includes the simple issues that are often caught at roadside inspections.
To get the most out of your maintenance program, keep an ongoing record of your assets’ service history. This will reveal if there is a recurring issue and can help you forecast potential future maintenance needs based on past performance.
The supply chain crisis also delivered a hard lesson. Unexpected upheavals can occur in any industry at any time. Leaders cannot always rely on regular shipments of new assets, given the uncertainty of an ever-changing economic landscape. Proper asset maintenance can reduce their risk of exposure to these uncertainties.
A modern culture could help combat workforce shortages.
Another major challenge impacting America’s ability to meet supply chain demands is the truck driver shortage. In 2021, the American Trucking Association estimated the current industry shortage to be 80,000 drivers, a number it says could double by 2030.
This shortage comes along with an aging workforce. While the average age of new drivers is 35, the average age of all over-the-road truck drivers is 46, according to a 2019 report from the American Trucking Associations. This means the rate of incoming recruits may not be high enough to offset coming retirees.
A trucker lifestyle is rooted in independence, flexibility, stability and security—which many current drivers are likely to appreciate about the job. However, enticing new drivers requires evangelizing trucking’s long-term opportunities.
Fleet managers should actively work to build a culture that empowers drivers and ensures that safety is a principal value. Operators and managers in the back office should be there to support each and every driver in the fleet. They should focus deeply on communication. Fleet managers should make sure drivers feel supported and recognized. Include them in management decisions where appropriate. As drivers are the ones using technology, processes and protocols, it’s important to keep them in the communication loop.
This open line of communication can be established through radio, messaging apps, phone calls and tablets with the goal of boosting driver morale, celebrating successes and career milestones, and reminding drivers that there is a team of supporters behind them.
Check in with drivers, incentivize them, and remember that the technology at your disposal is more than just a way to ensure regulatory compliance. The industry has access to powerful data from many integrated technologies, but it’s up to fleets to use the technologies they adopt in a way that retains current drivers and attracts new ones.
Knowing that any industry’s greatest asset is its people, leaders should do what they can to create a supportive, modern company culture that entices new and young employees into the market.
What is the path forward for growth?
Economic turmoil concerns both employers and employees. The challenge of maintaining a vibrant long-term economy is that there will be economic downturns and calamities to contend with. Concentrated strategies to lengthen the lifecycle of assets with predictive maintenance, better understand and monitor expenses related to costly materials and create a culture that encourages young recruits during workforce shortages can permit leaders to bolster organization-wide efficiency and maintain operations—especially in the worst of times.
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