“Supply chain troubles.” “From bad  to worse .” It was a “perfect storm for our supply chain crisis.” These are just a few of the headlines I’ve seen in recent weeks looking back on 2021. While I think we’re all eager to turn the page and start anew, I fear many of the challenges we experienced last year will continue into 2022 – and perhaps beyond. If there’s one thing we learned last year, it’s that our supply chain is more fragile than many of us imagined.
Case in point, a recent estimate from the American Trucking Associations (ATA) reported that the truck driver shortage has risen to 80,000 – an all-time high for the industry. According to the ATA study, the driver shortage could surpass 160,000 by the end of the decade, noting that the industry will need to recruit nearly one million new drivers to replace those retiring or leaving the business. Not only did the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020 exacerbate the issue, but it also revealed gaps in every link of the supply chain and then amplified the impact of those collective weaknesses.
A recent Wall Street Journal article perfectly summarized the challenge:
Trucks haul more than 70% of domestic cargo shipments. Yet many fleets say they can’t hire enough drivers to meeting booming consumer demand as the U.S. economy emerges from the pandemic. The freight backup has intensified longstanding strains in the industry over hours, pay, working conditions and retention. The surge of goods has created logjams at loading docks and port terminals, gobbling up scarce trucking capacity and making drivers’ jobs even harder. Factories and warehouses are also short of staff to load and receive goods. Meanwhile, the broader labor shortage has left openings for other blue-collar jobs that compete with trucking, including in local delivery operations, construction and manufacturing.
To better understand the operational and logistical issues retailers, importers, wholesalers and other distribution organizations are facing due to the state of today’s supply chain, I recently spoke Nick Tsitis, vice president at TITAN Professional Tools. His account is eye-opening, to say the least, and can hopefully help those facing similar challenges.
Q: How did the Suez Canal accident create operational and logistical issues for businesses like TITAN Professional Tools?
A: No one talks about this anymore. Before conversations of current supply chain issues, however, our forwarders often referenced the incident. I believe it significantly contributed to and accelerated our current supply chain problems, including shortages of equipment and limited space on vessels and at our ports. There’s been a huge stress on the ports, making it difficult to even get containers off the ships. And when you do get them off the ships, they sit in these piles disorderly piles they’re calling “pig piles” now. Whatever’s on top becomes available first. And if you’re on the bottom of that pig pile, your merchandise is stuck.
So, not only is it taking time to get containers off ships, but it’s also taking time to get them from the ground onto chassis. Once containers finally do make it to our facility, and we get them unloaded, you would think with such a shortage of equipment there would be an urgency to return containers, but they cannot be returned to the port. We recently discovered 12 containers being stored in our business park from someone that is not a tenant here. Apparently, they ran out space in their complex, and decided to park the equipment at ours.
Q: How have issues like this impacted your operating costs?
A: In so many ways. It used to cost $1,500 to get a container from Asia to Seattle. Now we’re paying as high as $18,000. We are often charged demurrage for containers that are off vessels but not delivered to us within a week. There are surcharges being implemented on both sides as well (Asia and USA). It’s a huge burden on us. It also affects our cash conversion cycle as goods invoiced to us are stuck in transit, and we can’t invoice until we receive and ship to our customers.
Q: How are you dealing with dock scheduling and similar issues caused by all this unpredictability?
A: Once we can get the container and get an appointment, it hasn’t been too big of a problem. On occasion, the truck drivers will have to wait sometimes six to eight hours to pick up a container. We used to pay under $100 to get a container from Seattle to Kent. Now it’s almost $700 to move it seven miles. Local drayage is up, and we’re often having to pay the drivers by the hour to wait in line to ensure we get our merchandise.
Q: Are you also facing labor shortages in the warehouse that compound these issues?
A: I know others have but we haven’t realized that because we’re a small business and have a lot of family here that have been with the company for a long time. We are fortunate and may be y the exception when it comes to labor. But, yes, when you look down the road and see Amazon hiring at $23.50 an hour with a $3,000 signing bonus, it can be hard to compete with that. it has in the past.
Q: How close do you think we are to seeing an end to these disruptions?
A: Well, everything’s related in one way or another – if not directly, then indirectly – to these supply chain problems. Our lead time with several factories is now as high as 18 months, where it used to take 45 to 90 days to manufacture product and 14 days transit is now taking as many as 60 or 90 days transit. There are some factories, that if we placed an order now, we won’t see it for almost two years. That’s an extreme. Most factories now are taking 6 to 8 months. As a result, we’re buying out a year, which is really scary. So, yes, it’s going to take a long time to recover. I don’t think it’s going to get back to normal for at least another year.
Q: Based on your experiences, what advice would you share with other businesses facing similar challenges?
A: We often use the word “partnership” between vendors and customers. We are making it thru these challenging times because of the true partnerships we have on both sides, with our vendors, and our customers. Everyone is understanding, being more flexible and forgiving, and more willing to accommodate than before. Pardon the pun, but everyone is “in the same boat” on this. We need to work together to get through it.