KANSAS CITY, KS – Just after 5:30 on a cold November morning, David Hyde arrived at the charging station on the prosthetics of Kansas City, Kansas, wondering what new torment was in store for that day.
His company, Jack Cooper Transport, delivers new cars to dealerships from auto factories across the United States. It carries some tractors, and sends more by rail.
Before the global supply chain descended into chaos, the station was running at a steady, dependable cadence. Roughly once every minute, a new car showed up from the nearby GM Fairfax plant and landed in the parking lot. Railroad cars brought an expected influx of cars from other General Motors plants. Mr Heide, director of the Fairfax station, can post drivers and yard crews with confirmation.
Nobody uses words like predictable these days. As Mr. Hyde crosses the darkened courtyard, he has no idea how many railroad cars the understaffed railroad has dispatched, or how many General Motors will hang. He doesn’t know if there will be enough work for the crew he called up this week.
“It was really a lot of leg madness,” says Mr. Headey.
The Major disruption in the supply chain Turn charging stations into volatile areas full of doubts and best guesses. Nearly two years into the pandemic, reliable planning remains next to impossible at every point in the supply chain. Nobody has complete control over their own circumstances, nor can they speculate on the fortunes of their suppliers, distributors, and customers. The result is a feedback loop of disparity hampering efforts to restart the economy after the virus shutdown.
Fairfax Station highlights a troubling reality in the global economy: So many unknowns haunt the supply chain that any semblance of normality remains elusive, even as some of the chaos recedes and Shipping rates go down.
Between February and September, General Motors halted operations at its Fairfax plant due to a Severe shortage of computer chips An essential component of contemporary cars. The plant produces again, working one shift instead of the previous one or three shifts.
However, like the rest of the trucking industry, the station is striving to recruit truck drivers in anticipation of an eventual flood of new vehicles. For now, Mr. Hyde is resisting GM’s pressure to move faster.
“Their expectation is that you can just toggle the switch, and there are 20 drivers. Then I’m stuck paying 20 people who have nothing to do,” says Mr. Hyde, 49.
Not that GM is the culprit. The automaker is dealing with its own logistical problems.
“Our customers are not trying to be tired,” says Sarah Amiko, CEO of Jack Cooper Holdings Corporation, which owns and operates the Fairfax station with more than 30 others in North America. Their reality is also changing. The supply chain is being recreated in real time.”
Inside the building, next to the dispatch desk, six drivers sit at wooden picnic tables under fluorescent lights, arranging their morning rides. Using tablet computers, they scan available assignments, each labeled for the applicable wage, which is based on the number of miles they have to drive from the station to the destination. They are selected according to seniority.
Dave Pinegar has already been on the road for three hours, having driven here from his home in Wichita, Kan. , about 200 miles to the southwest.
“First bird gets the worm, man,” he says.
It scrolls through the options. Running to Broken Arrow, Okla, would earn him. $452, while a longer trip to Malvern brings him, Ark $717. The longest route — a 641-mile trip to Batavia, Ohio — would have paid $929, but it would keep him away from his wife and two daughters for at least one night.
He opted for a flight back to Wichita, which pays only $299. Absent any drama, he will be home by midday.
Mr. Pingar’s shipment illustrates the complexities in the supply chain.
First, he’ll stop at a dealership in Emporia, Kansas, where he delivers three Chevy Trailblazer SUVs built at a factory in South Korea. Next, he’ll continue to Wichita carrying two Chevy Malibus from the Fairfax factory, a pair of Cadillacs—a CT5 sedan made in Lansing, Michigan, and an Escalade SUV made near Fort Worth, Texas. Finally, there’s a blue Mexico-built Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck.
“This is a long journey,” says Mr. Pingar.
Sometimes, he encounters angry dealers, spending the time it took for the cars to arrive. But in recent months, as chip shortages have turned cars into valuables, he has often been greeted with applause, with people even videotaping him unloading his cargo.
“I feel like Santa Claus,” he says.
Out in the courtyard a little after 6 a.m., with the first flash of light crept across a gray sky, Mr. Bingar began to drive his assigned chariots up the slope of his trailer like a circus trick. Then it rolls through the gates and disappears down the highway.
If anything prevailed there, the margin of error would have narrowed.
The week before, one of Mr. Hyde’s trailers had developed a leaking radiator and failed outside Elkhart, Indiana — 582 miles from Kansas City.
The company towed the truck to a local repair shop. In normal times, the driver would wait there for the coolant to be replaced. But the store didn’t have a cooler, and they can’t make any guarantees about how long it would take to get one.
Mr. Headey had a decision to make. He could have left his driver in Indiana, bet the coolant would have arrived by the end of the week. But he knew auto parts were stuck inside shipping containers on cargo ships stranded off ports from Los Angeles to Savannah, ja. He had no idea if the repair shop had enough people to run the job, or if the parts distributor had enough drivers to deliver coolant quickly.
He risked paying his driver several days of hotel accommodation while the cargo was not delivered.
So Mr. Hyde asked his driver to rent a car and go home. He arranged for another driver at Jack Cooper Station near St. Louis to go and rescue the cargo and deliver it to its final destination in Ohio.
Born and raised in central Kansas, Mr. Heide played the catcher on his college baseball team. He walks the station with the playful confidence of someone who is used to giving directions, while accepting rough ribbing if well-meaning.
But he cannot hide his frustration at having to deliver results in a system dominated by factors beyond his control.
Last week, General Motors told him it was planning to launch nearly 700 vehicles, with Hyde expected to deploy 12 workers to the yard to load railcars.
Instead, Mr. Hyde opted for a cautious approach, predicting – correctly – that nearly a fifth of newly released cars would be put on hold. He brought only six workers into the yard. He was determined not to absorb the costs of idle hands.
Assistant station manager, Phil Rose, spends most of his day in a windowless office staring at a spreadsheet detailing vehicle inventory. This morning’s spreadsheet shows that 1,700 vehicles produced inside the Fairfax GM plant are parked in the yard.
It searches for blocks of nine or 10 cars heading to destinations on one logical route. The more cars, the easier the exercise. But with GM’s plant only operating one shift, production was sporadic. On some days, the station sends more than 200 cars by truck; Only another 60 days.
“This thing is built for three shifts, all outward,” says Mr. Hyde.
Mr. Hyde assumes that normal life awaits us. He’s intent on stepping up efforts, even as uncertainty about the show undermines his efforts. He expects five new trucks, but the same chip shortage that has plagued the rest of the auto industry means he will likely have to wait at least six months.
On top of all that, he and his colleagues are short on drivers and have to recruit 15 more, which is pointless training.
“It’s horrific,” says Lindley Davis, head of human resources for the Atlanta-based company. “People want to be at home. They don’t want to drive a truck.”
Jack Cooper is one of only two companies represented in the unions remaining in the auto transportation industry. He pays training wages of up to $90,000 a year, plus pensions and health benefits that the company covers all of its premiums. The company distributed signature bonuses of $10,000.
Still, takers are few.
On a call with her team of recruits, Ms. Davis heard reports of applicants being “disappeared” – disappearing incommunicado – or receiving other offers. A driver who accepted a job offer backed out after his employer tripled his salary.
Mr. Hyde finds himself considering two unpalatable options: he can lower his standards and accept that people who don’t usually cut will drive from his yard with a million-dollar load of cars. Or he can hold out but risks not having enough drivers when production rises.
It aims for a compromise, bringing in people with unquestionable experience but flags that may have disqualified them, like many different jobs in a few years.
Just before 3 p.m., when the afternoon sun shone from the windshield in the yard, Mr. Hyde learned that only 127 vehicles had arrived by rail today, and only 50 were to come tomorrow.
“That’s nothing in terms of having good stock to build loads,” he says.
He sent five drivers across the Missouri River to another Jack Cooper station next to the Ford plant to work on clearing the backlog.
Mr. Hyde sits at his desk, checks his email and prepares himself for whatever comes next.