DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg's strange interview with an owner-op

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Buttigieg and owner-operator David Alvarado have. a nice, if superficial, chat.
Buttigieg and owner-operator David Alvarado have. a nice, if superficial, chat.

DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently shared a short video where he interviews an owner-operator at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, California.

The interview itself is nice enough, if a bit pithy, but there's something just not quite right about it -- it's shot in January 2022, and the years have not been kind to it. 

"We need to make sure more people understand this stuff," Buttigieg said of trucking to open the video. 

That right there should tell you this video isn't really for the trucking world or owner-operators. It's slickly produced and essentially pitches trucking as fun, and important. Perhaps the idea was if savvy, successful Buttigieg shines a light on the industry, they can make a dent in that "driver shortage" we hear big fleets constantly complain about?

That's what's so strange. Spot rates in January 2022 sat around $3.15/mile, contract just under that, and both easing off the pandemic-induced highs. Around then, supply chain problems had become the new hot business story as locked-down Americans awaited their Amazon orders at home. (Things got so bad that rock 'n' roller Jack White would later in 2022 cheekily dub his performance series the Supply Chain Issues tour.) 

Just a month earlier, President Joe Biden's administration launched the "Trucking Action Plan to Strengthen America’s Trucking Workforce," a central tenant of which included "asking industry, labor, and all levels of government to partner with us to address these trucking workforce challenges and begin building a next generation trucking workforce."

Buttigieg's interview with David Alvarado, an owner-op wearing a JCT Trucking t-shirt (he probably hauled for them at the ports at the time, and may still) should be seen in that context -- a pitch to get young workers into trucking, shot in an informal, almost podcasty style with the Biden administration's youngest secretary. 

"I feel like most people most of the time don't think much about where their stuff comes from, and then in the last two years it's all over the news," Buttigieg said. "What's it like to watch everyone suddenly noticing what goes on in our ports?"  

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"For so many years, we truckers have been forgotten," said Alvarado. "Right now with the pandemic, they know who we are now. We are very important. If we stop, the whole world stops."

"Kind of the definition of an essential worker, right?" the Secretary said. 

From there, he asked about the kinds of people he gets to meet and work with at the job. Alvarado said he sees his dad, who got him into trucking, around the port and he talks to his other trucker buddies on the phone. 

Trucking isn't so lonely after all.

Overall, the video attempts to glorify truck driving, and make it seem like a job worth doing.

But let's think about Alvarado's situation. If his truck breaks down and needs replacement in January 2024, just two months away and two short years after shaking hands with the DOT boss himself, he'll need to pony up about a half-million dollars and wait for an EV or other zero-emissions vehicle to be delivered to get around California's strict new port drayage regs.

A year after this video, California banned 230,000 pre-2010 spec trucks from the state. Was Alvarado in one of them? 

Right now, he'll need to think about registering for California's "smog checks," which also kick off in the new year. 

[Related: CARB 'smog check' truck reporting system seminars upcoming]

Right now, spot rates are in the tank, contract not much better, and container rates for Alvarado and business partners have suffered similarly. Trucking costs, meanwhile, with some exceptions in used equipment, have almost never been higher. 

Also since the video was shot, California's AB 5 law went into action, threatening the very existence of Alvarado's relationships with his business partners as an owner-operator. 

It's great to shine a light on the important work Alvarado and all truckers do. But do we really need more drivers lured in by promises that boil down to "it's actually not that bad."

Owner-operators want regulatory clarity, predictability and equipment that they can buy, and that works. We all know government deliberation takes a long, long time (just look at FMCSA's moves around broker transparency, delayed now until October 31, 2024), but two years after its original release, this video shows how out of sync regulators are with the fast-moving trucking world. 

[Related: Tesla's Semi blows past diesels uphill, but do owner-ops care?]