Trucking troubles in Idaho hit effort to boost exports

Idaho’s geography and small output combine with a driver shortage to limit access. Its shipments of goods are growing faster than the national average.

MEDILL NEWS SERVICEJanuary 3, 2014 

  • U.S. exports rise but are still likely to fall short of Obama’s goal

    The U.S. is in the midst of a push to increase exports, one that began in January 2010, when President Barack Obama announced the National Export Initiative in his State of the Union address.

    “The more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America,” Obama said.

    The executive order called for doubling exports from 2009 levels within five years as a way to boost the nation’s sluggish post-recession economic recovery. Obama outlined a strategy of assisting small businesses with exports, ramping up export promotion, and opening new markets to U.S. goods and services.

    Exports have increased each year since the initiative launched, and so have jobs. Exports of goods and services supported 9.7 million jobs in the U.S. in 2011, an increase of 1.2 million since 2009, according to the Obama administration.

    But current trends indicate that the country isn’t increasing exports fast enough to meet the administration’s target or to narrow a trade deficit that’s widened fivefold over the past two decades.

    Reaching the initiative’s export goal requires annual growth of about 15 percent, economists projected. The current growth rate falls short, according to Ryan Donahue, a Brookings Institution researcher.

    If growth continues at the average rate of 11.9 percent during the initiative’s first three years, total annual exports at the end of 2014 will be $2.77 trillion, about $390 billion short of the target, Donahue said. That means they would have risen about 75 percent.

    “How realistic the goal is even from its outset was probably a little too ambitious,” Wells Fargo economist Tim Quinlan said.

    Medill News Service

WASHINGTON — As many states look to increase their global exports, one of the biggest challenges is among the most basic: finding ways to move products so they’re ready to be shipped overseas.

In Idaho, wheat, vegetables and dairy products were among the top agricultural exports in 2012, according to the Idaho Department of Agriculture. The products were destined for Canada, Mexico, China and Japan.

But the state’s location sometimes limits local businesses’ ability to ship exports abroad efficiently, fueling a reliance on truck drivers to haul goods to transfer points such as Seattle, Portland and Oakland, said Jan Roeser, a regional economist at the Idaho Department of Labor.

“We can’t even get enough trucks,” said Bill Newbry, the chief executive officer of the Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative, which represents more than 750 farmers in the Idaho and Washington region. “We could utilize 12 to 15 a day, and we’re lucky to get three or four. It’s very, very difficult to get the commodity out on time.”

There’s a river port in Lewiston, about 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean, but some Central and Southern Idaho businesses aren’t able to access it easily, Roeser said.

In 2011, about 500,000 tons of wheat were shipped from the port, and that increased to about 725,000 in 2012, according to port records. The number of container shipments from the port dropped from about 13,000 in 2007 to 5,000 in 2012, however.

The container decline “has been a function of the Great Recession,” said David Doeringsfeld, manager of the Port of Lewiston. “We’re not trying to become a West Coast port. What we’re doing is providing for the region the least-cost method for local businesses.”

Limited access to freight rail is another problem Idaho businesses face.

“We don’t have as many goods as others might, so we don’t get preferential treatment by the railroads,” Roeser said. “We have smaller amounts, smaller goods, and it just doesn’t pay for them to stop and pick up what we have.”

Although the demand for truck drivers continues to increase, experts say that trucking companies face recruitment challenges, which further limits the state’s ability to increase global exports.

The nationwide demand for truck drivers will grow by 21 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the national average for all occupations, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects.

“Trucks go anywhere or just about anywhere,” said Bob Costello, the chief economist at the American Trucking Associations. “As the economy continues to improve, we see demands for truck drivers increasing. If you go to truck driver training school and don’t have a criminal record or poor driving record, you’re going to get hired.”

In Idaho, about 20,000 truck drivers and driver/sales workers were employed in 2012, up from about 18,000 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

To recruit more drivers, trucking companies and driving schools have been partnering, said Julie Pipal, the president and CEO of the Idaho Trucking Association.

One of those is Handy Truck Line, which has about 100 employees and four locations in Idaho.

CEO Clay Handy said he hasn’t encountered many problems retaining truck drivers, but he noted that some companies face high turnover.

“The core problem is that for most people, it’s not an attractive job,” he said. “They want to be home more often.”

Said Newbry, of the farmers cooperative: “You can tell how good the economy is by the demand for transportation. If you can’t find enough trucks to haul your product, they’re somewhere else hauling.”

Idaho targets ag, tech exports

Although Idaho’s global exports wavered some from year to year, the Gem State increased the volume of its products going overseas by nearly 192 percent over the past 10 years, representing about a $4 billion increase in goods, according to federal trade data.

“Idaho is a merchant state,” Gov. Butch Otter said in a statement. “We can’t consume all that we produce here, so it’s critical that we develop markets domestically and internationally for Idaho commodities and products.”

From 2009, the starting point for the Obama administration’s National Export Initiative, through 2012, Idaho’s exports of goods grew 58 percent, compared with national growth of 46 percent, according to federal trade data.

Computer and electronic products, transportation equipment, manufactured food products, primary-metal manufacturing, chemicals and agricultural products were the state’s largest export categories in 2012. Canada, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and China were its top five trading partners.

With Micron Technology in Boise, local experts say that electronics, exports of which increased by 137 percent in the state from 2003 to 2012, continue to help drive Idaho’s business.

“We are more than potatoes,” said Megan Ronk, the Idaho Department of Commerce’s chief administrative officer. Even so, Ronk said agriculture continues to be one of the state’s strengths.

As part of Otter’s goal to expand global trade, the Republican has visited a number of countries — including South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam — to meet with government and corporate officials, hoping to create and foster trade relationships. Seventeen Idaho companies traveled with Otter on a nine-day trip to Russia in November.

“Missions like this create and maintain Idaho jobs, and they expose the world to the quality and value that Idaho brings to market,” he said in his statement.

Other major corporations, such as Chobani yogurt, have set up shop in Idaho, but the state still ranks 38th as an exporter, according to 2012 data.

Idaho’s isolated location and small population affect its ability to trade globally, experts say.

Nevertheless, the state has seen a growing overseas market for some of its goods.

“A lot of Third World countries that were considered more developing countries, they’ve become more wealthy,” said Jan Roeser, a regional economist at the Idaho Department of Labor. “They are able to buy more of the agricultural exports we’ve sent out.”

The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The Idaho Statesman contributed.

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