UPS ‘Feeder Drivers’ Make Holidays Possible But Clogged American Infrastructure Creates Ongoing Problems

Part One of a Two-Part Series

When Americans celebrated the holidays, many of their homes and businesses were filled with gifts, paper goods, food and gadgets delivered by an extensive UPS fleet negotiating the nation’s weathered transportation network.

During the 2019 peak holiday season, which ran from Nov. 29 to Dec. 30, the company was projected to deliver an average of 32 million packages and documents a day — a 60 percent increase over what it delivers on an average, non-peak day. This equals nearly three quarters of a billion holiday presents, medical supplies, auto parts, computer equipment and legal documents in one month.

To handle the holidays, the company added seasonal positions, among other efforts. It also has new highly automated super-hubs and new large aircraft, and deploys proprietary systems that include tools to help avoid bottlenecks.

Technology, online shopping, and shipping competitors such as UPS, FedEx and Amazon are recasting how, and how quickly, goods move today.

Mike Marshall has worked for UPS for nearly two decades. As the Transportation Manager for the company’s Minnesota & Wisconsin territory, he oversees dozens of facilities and hubs cumulatively, dispatchers, a management team of about 60 people, and nearly 700 tractor-trailer drivers who know Minnesota and Wisconsin’s infrastructure problems well. At UPS, these drivers are known as feeder drivers and not by the American colloquialism of trucker, as they “feed” the UPS network with trailer-loads of packages.

Globally, and in every city and nearly every nook and cranny of the United States, UPS moves packages. They generally originate as bulk freight, internationally or domestically, and are shipped by air, water, rail and roads. For UPS, its U.S. feeder operations are a major and indispensable link to getting packages to homes and businesses in the company’s iconic brown package delivery vehicles.

“Really, the majority of work at UPS is about what’s happening behind the scenes, and that is moving those packages in the transportation network across the country,” Marshall says. “It’s really a hub-and-spoke-type situation where regionally there are a number of hubs around the country and smaller buildings that feed all those hubs.

“In Minnesota, we have 24 smaller buildings that each have their own drivers of tractor-trailers and they’ll bring volume from those smaller centers into a larger hub — for example, into Minneapolis or St. Paul — and that volume will be processed, unloaded from trailers, and loaded back into new trailers and then sent back out to further destinations. And so we’re talking about, on any given night in one of those hubs, hundreds of thousands of packages being processed and sent out in trailers.”

UPS’s network is tight to reduce the time goods are in transit, according to Marshall. The more that feeder drivers sit on the road, the longer it can take for packages to get to their final destinations, and the more wear and tear this puts on roads and bridges. There is also a labor-sector component because drivers are unionized and annually bid on routes based on seniority.

For Marshall’s region, what follows is just a fragment of what the experts say about regional infrastructure challenges: In the Minnesota 2018 Infrastructure Report Card, the Minnesota Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave Minnesota’s roads a grade of D+, noting that state roads are underfunded by $17.7 billion over the next 20 years. A September 2018 report, “Wisconsin Transportation by the Numbers,” by the national transportation research group TRIP, concluded that “half of major locally and state-maintained roads and highways in Wisconsin are in poor or mediocre condition” and “more than 2,800 people were killed in traffic crashes in Wisconsin in the last five years.”

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