While Maine's trucking industry has charged forward throughout the pandemic -- one tractor-trailer pictured here driving east on Route 1 -- parts and driver shortages are putting a squeeze on the businesses that keep trucks on the road. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

MADAWASKA, Maine — Trucks that shuttle goods to and from grocery stores, pharmacies and factories across Maine are sitting in garages, waiting for new parts. While truckers became frontline workers during the pandemic — keeping food and medicine on store shelves — some in the industry are stuck waiting as their own supply chain fails them.

Dealers, parts suppliers and trucking companies from across the state are reporting the debilitating impacts of national shortages in truck parts and drivers.

“It’s screwing up a lot of things: vehicle replacement, cash flow for businesses, staying profitable and moving product,” said Kyle Daigle, the co-owner of Frenchville- and Bangor-based Autotronics, which sells and services commercial vehicles.

Many essential parts — headlights, hoods and electrical sensors, for example — are on “intergalactic backorder,” Glenney Mahan, the service manager at Whited Peterbilt Truck Center in Presque Isle, said. His garage just received a hood for a truck repair that mechanics started on Feb. 1.

Dealerships are resorting to paying each other for parts, because buying them from manufacturers is increasingly difficult and expensive, Mahan said.

“It’s adding hours a day to what we do — not minutes, not seconds, not an extra phone call,” he said. “Sometimes 10 phone calls, 20 phone calls.”

Factories closed down or otherwise hamstrung by COVID-19 cases and restrictions, plus more general raw material shortages in steel, aluminum and lumber have created a shrinking supply of truck parts of all sizes at a national level.

Some of the most difficult parts to acquire are microchips, an essential component of the electrical systems in most modern vehicles. There’s a global shortage of the part that’s so bad right now that major car manufacturers have started producing less-advanced vehicles to cope.

For a small business, it’s almost impossible to get these parts in a timely manner. Mahan said while some customers are understanding, others are turning their backs on businesses they’ve patronized for years.

Long waits for parts are compounded by a rising demand for trucks and truck parts as the economy returns to working order. In Van Buren, town councilors are putting in an order for a custom highway truck that won’t arrive until next summer. In Madawaska, the ambulance department is looking to buy its next vehicle from a demo lot because custom orders take too long.

“It’s a very cutthroat business right now,” Daigle at Autotronics said.

Daigle said his orders have been off the charts. Among other things, his dealership carries emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire trucks. Normally he keeps from one to three ambulances on his lot, but now orders as many as he can at once, he said. Out of one four-truck order he made last month, two were sold before they arrived on his lot and the other two sold within two weeks of their arrival.

Daigle just can’t get products in as fast as he can sell them.

“Right now, you order a new truck and you don’t know when you’re getting the chassis,” Daigle said.

Conflating the issue is a truck driver shortage. With fewer drivers than needed, parts that are available take longer to arrive and cost more. Mahan said he’s paid as much as four times the original cost of a part in shipping fees.

At a national level, the driver shortage is well-known to industry leaders like the American Trucking Association. In 2019, an ATA report found that the industry was nearly 61,000 drivers short of what it needed to operate at capacity.

“Based on the current economic trends and what we’re hearing anecdotally from our members and shippers and other folks in the supply chain, we have no reason to believe it is better than that,” Sean McNally, ATA’s vice president of public affairs, said. “It is most likely worse than that at the moment.”

On top of a number of structural shortfalls McNally highlighted — an aging workforce, for example — he said pandemic restrictions meant that driver training schools graduated anywhere between 30 and 40 percent fewer students last year.

A number of dealers and suppliers in Maine cited increased pandemic unemployment benefits as a potential cause of shortages both in qualified drivers and mechanics. McNally said that if benefits were a contributor, they were likely less significant than the impact of other factors. For example, in 2020 more than 50,000 drivers left the workforce after either failing or not completing their DOT-mandated drug and alcohol tests.

McNally said he takes an optimistic view of the future — that high demand for drivers will create better paying, better quality job opportunities and that in the realm of parts, whatever supply chain knots exist will resolve themselves.

But in Maine, trucking woes predate the pandemic, and will likely outlast it. The industry has seen fewer drivers and a shrinking footprint in the region for years, partly due to the decline of some of the state’s major manufacturers.

“The biggest problem I would say with Maine and Miami or Seattle or Portland is they’re in the corner of the universe,” David Owen, president of the Tennessee-based National Association of Small Trucking Companies, said. “As far as distribution goes, when there’s a problem … they feel it first.”

For those in the trucking industry who saw the country through the pandemic, it’s a hard pill to swallow.

“We kept those shortages from happening,” Owen said. “Because of our truckers and trucking companies, and risks they took with their health and their families’ health … we didn’t have shortages in food, fuel and medicine.”

Mahan said he hasn’t had a day off since the pandemic began. The increased demands, the shortages, the high costs — it’s all creating a stressful environment he said is palpable in his place of work.

Before the pandemic, it was already hard to get parts, especially in northern Maine, but it’s gotten a whole lot worse recently.

“It has been a challenge to say the least,” Mahan said. “It was always a challenge before, but now, what we’re dealing with is just horrible.”

Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.