With parts and labor shortages forcing fleets to extend truck and trailer trade cycles, fleets are ramping up communication and becoming more creative in how they service equipment.
No longer is it about getting a unit into the least expensive shop, or even the closest.
“It’s who can get us in and get us out,” Kevin Bergman, director of fleet maintenance for Prime Inc. said during a Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) webinar on how fleets are coping with parts shortages. “Price is secondary.”
Bison Transport is also willing to spend more to keep equipment running. Mike Gomes, vice-president of maintenance, said the company is FedEx-ing parts to service providers so they can get units back on the road faster. It has also doubled its own parts inventory.
“We are taking advantage of trailer load purchase for brake shoes and drums. Understanding that the cost of raw materials is going up, we wanted to ensure we’re not short of common items like that,” Gomes said.
Mike Zbieroski, director of maintenance with WEL Companies, said his fleet has leaned heavily on OEM representatives – not just dealers – to foresee parts shortages and manage them.
“Our reps have kept us informed of any shortages that are coming,” he said. “If there’s a part the dealer can’t get, they’re the first people we call. My suggestion is, don’t just call the local dealer when you’re looking for a part. Get the reps involved – maybe even the guy who sold you the truck.”
WEL also reorders parts the moment one goes on a truck or trailer. Zbieroski said it feels like as soon as one part shortage is alleviated, another is in short supply.
Fleets are having to refocus on preventive maintenance schedules in light of longer trade cycles. At Prime, a three-year cycle for new tractors has been stretched to four. The challenge, Bergman said, is lack of data on what it takes to maintain a four-year-old truck. “We’re a data-driven company and when we don’t have the data, we have to wing it week to week,” he said.
“If you don’t have a good maintenance program in place and you don’t enforce it, 2022 is going to be a real challenge,” added Zbieroski. “Our main focus is on pushing processes and procedures. Managing what happens in-house and minimizing what happens over the road.”
Fleets have also had to improve communications to ensure equipment gets the attention it requires. At Prime, an app sends push notifications to drivers when their equipment needs servicing. Bison, too, is leveraging technology. It has integrated its maintenance and dispatching systems so it can prioritize the equipment that is most in need of maintenance.
“Making sure they’re going after the right trailer, at the right place, at the right time,” Gomes explained. “Our goal is zero incidents over the road. We try to capture those trailers at the right time to give us the greatest chance of success.”
When a truck or trailer does require a repair, Gomes said wait times are immediately discussed with service providers. Bison also does is part to be a good customer.
“On the back end, making sure invoices are processed quickly so vendors aren’t waiting for payments,” Gomes said. “We don’t want our vendors having to ask for payments. Make sure those things are smooth and processed as quickly and easily as possible.”
Fleets are also pre-authorizing work with their preferred vendors. At Prime, work costing up to $1,000 can be done by select providers without going through the authorization process that can slow the repair.
“Is it a blank check book? We found it hasn’t been, so far,” Bergman said. “The average bill hasn’t gone up because of this. It takes some steps out of the process of getting authorization and making phone calls.”
Bison has relied more on instant messaging such as Microsoft Teams to improve internal communications and minimize phone calls, Gomes said.
‘We’d buy 4,000 [trailers] if they’d let us. We are going to get maybe 800.’
Kevin Bergman, Prime Inc.
Shop organization has also become paramount. Prime began incorporating VMRS coding – right down to the nine-digit part number – which has helped it better understand the total cost of replacing any part. The same is true at WEL.
“If you put garbage in, you’re going to get garbage out,” Zbieroski said of the data entry process.
As to when the parts shortages will end, fleet panelists were optimistic this year will be better than last. Zbieroski said truck deliveries seem to be back on track, but it brought on a third trailer supplier last year to get the units it needed. He said some trailers increased in price by about $20,000, and “We had little no success in negotiations. ‘Either you buy it, or we’ll sell it to someone else.’”
Bergman said Prime won’t be getting many new trailers in until August. “We’d buy 4,000 if they’d let us. We are going to get maybe 800, hopefully,” he said.
Bison got lucky and 2021 was not a big year for its scheduled replenishment of the fleet. Gomes doesn’t anticipate being unable to get the equipment the company needs this year.
As for labor shortages, fleets are being more aggressive in bringing in entry-level recruits, giving them jobs in the yard and helping those who are interested in pursuing a career in the trade an apprenticeship. Gomes said Bison is “overstaffing” its operations to develop that talent internally.
Zbieroski noted his company has had to increase pay, vacation time, 401K contributions – as well as bringing in entry-level recruits.
“Most technicians are interested in one thing – how much you’re paying them,” he said.
For fleets that pay above-average wages, this can be a benefit, added Bergman. Prime launched a marketing campaign dubbed Prime Pays to promote its pay rates, which it says are above average. Bergman also found recruiting technicians became easier when ‘heavy-duty’ was removed from the job description.
“Tractor mechanic was intimidating to people,” he said. “We leave it open for interpretation and that is now our most applied for job, by far.”