For the first time in its 11-year history, the Georgia Logistics Summit Regional Forum was held outside of Atlanta, as the yearly gathering took place Thursday at the Clarence Brown Conference Center in Cartersville.
“We decided this year that we wanted to take the summit on the road, and to find opportunities to showcase other parts of the state and how unique logistics assets and aspects really do have a statewide impact,” Center of Innovation for Logistics Director Matt Markham said during his opening remarks.
Markham, whose center is a program operated under the Georgia Department of Economic Development, said putting a spotlight on northwest Georgia simply made sense.
“Geographically, northwest Georgia also happens to be the farthest away from the state’s most prominent logistics asset, that’s the Georgia Ports Authority and the deepwater ports of Savannah and Brunswick,” he said. “I can think of no better example of how logistics can link all of our state together and provide new opportunities for businesses and communities across Georgia than the connection between northwest Georgia and Savannah through the Appalachian Regional Port.”
That asset in Murray County, he continued, means that companies no longer have to travel across the state to reap the benefits of port access.
“Georgia’s logistics industry continues to thrive and its economic impact continues to grow,” he said. “Georgia is home to the fourth-largest and fastest growing port in the nation at the port of Savannah, and the number one port for automobile processing in the port of Brunswick.”
Factoring in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and the state’s two Class I railroads, he said it’s not surprising to see the state’s logistics industry represent an overall economic impact of $60.7 billion last year.
“Nearly 400,000 Georgians are employed in logistics-related positions,” he said, “which equates to one out of every 14 jobs.”
Markham said the northwest Georgia corridor is home to the second-highest concentration of road transportation deployments in the state. He said he expects statewide freight traffic to increase 30 percent over the next 25 years.
“Our highway infrastructure continues to put Georgia ahead of the pack nationally,” he said. “This infrastructure will benefit from $11 billion in targeted interstate improvements over the next decade, including the creation of the nation’s first truck-only lanes.”
Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Congressional District 11 Board Representative Jeff Lewis said the State’s investments in infrastructure are vital to its logistics and distribution industries — which, in turn, he said impacts just about every other type of business within the state.
“We have some of the most forward-thinking state leaders, and I’m so glad to be working with them,” he said. “Our state government wants to complement business and sometimes complementing business means staying out of their way in certain areas, but it also means adding synergy and complementing certain things we do so that we can be a complement of providing goods and services to the state.”
Each day in Georgia, Lewis said the state’s roads collect about 184 million vehicle miles. Increased freight projections, he added, means GDOT must continue to invest in improvements to its existing infrastructure.
“We have 14,500 bridges in the state,” he said. “Some of them aren’t adequately rated to handle some of the weight … so we have to bring those bridges up to par, and we are doing that very aggressively.”
Lewis said House Bill 170 — a piece of legislation from 2015 that is also known as the Transportation Funding Act — reformulated the way the State collects motor fuel taxes. Since then, he said almost $1 billion in income has been added “annually to what we can do.”
“We have leveraged that money that’s coming in to plan for an $11 billion major mobility investment program (MMIP) all across the state, all the way from Savannah to this area up here, so that we can move people more safely, and move your freight faster,” he said. “We are roughly two years into that right now, and some of what that includes is three interchange projects, four express lane projects, three interstate widening projects, one commercial vehicle-only lane project [and] an I-85 widening project.”
Those combined MMIP projects, Lewis said, will add more than 300 new lane miles to Georgia’s metro areas. In total, he said the program is projected to create $2 billion in economic growth, $1 billion in additional personal income and 13,000 “long-term, permanent jobs” in the state.
Lewis briefly touched upon two transportation projects that would have a pronounced impact on logistics and distribution in Bartow County.
“[Commissioner Steve Taylor] is working on a freight project on Cass-White Road, and that here locally will connect Interstate 75 to U.S. 41,” he said. “Its main purpose is freight and it will be designated as a freight corridor.”
He also mentioned the Rome-Cartersville Development Corridor project as a potential game changer for local logistics.
“It will come in around where the Anheuser-Busch plant is located,” he said. “There’s also designs underway in a study to create a new interchange there, and it will be one of the state-of-the-art, commercial-grade, divergent diamond interchanges … that will move freight easily and quickly.”
Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson was on hand to discuss the impact of the logistics industry on the state’s overall business landscape.
“This was the sixth year in a row we were named the best state in the nation in which to do business, which is pretty amazing,” he said. “In fiscal year 2018, our global commerce division, which is our traditional business recruitment and existing industries division, they helped create a total of 27,373 new jobs, generating over $5.5 billion in investment.”
That growth, he said, is the result of a “record-breaking” 419 project locations in Georgia.
“We all know Atlanta is a great economic engine, but 80 percent of those projects were outside of the metro Atlanta area,” he said. “Of these located projects, 54 were logistics and distribution center projects, which resulted in nearly 6,000 new jobs to the State of Georgia and more than $760 million in investment.”
Economic growth in the northwest Georgia corridor, Wilson said, remains consistent, with over 2,500 new jobs and about $471 million in new investments added to the region in 2018.
“We’ve heard a lot of things about headwinds in the economy,” he said. “But we have more project activity right now than we’ve had in a long time.”
Wilson’s speech came just one day after Gov. Brian Kemp released the State’s 2018 international trade figures.
“These numbers set a new record, with exports surpassing $40 billion, a 9 percent increase over 2017’s numbers,” Wilson said. “Total trade between Georgia and the world — 223 countries and territories — [reached] a new high at $139 billion last year.”
Georgia’s top five trade markets are Canada, Mexico, China, Germany and Singapore.
“Aerospace remains our leading export industry in Georgia, with exports totaling $9.1 billion, [and] exports in medical devices and pharmaceuticals grew a record 13 percent last year to $1.7 billion,” Wilson continued.
Meanwhile, he said the state’s agricultural exports held steady at about $4.2 billion. He attributed that to growth in dairy, poultry, cotton and peanut exports — as well as the state’s logistics assets.
“Highways, byways, rail, air, ports, our outstanding logistics network is supporting key industries in the state, enabling them to better reach their customers and improve their bottom line,” he said.
The forum concluded with a roundtable discussion moderated by Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rob Bradham.
Much of the discussion focused on one of the logistics industry’s most dire problems — a lack of drivers.
“It is bleak right now, and it has been for a decade,” said panelist Stephanie Scearce, the Vice President of Economic Development at Georgia Northwestern Technical College.
Right now, she said some projections tab the driver deficit at about 60,000 jobs — a figure other analysts predict may triple by 2060.
Fornazor International Vice President of Logistics Carl Varner said at least some of that shortage can be blamed on federal electronic logging device (ELD) regulations which took effect in late 2017.
“We lost 40 percent of our drivers overnight,” Varner said of the legislation, which places strict limits on drivers’ hours of service.
Scearce said efforts to raise drivers’ salaries 15 percent to 17 percent have done little to attract more people to the industry.
Fielding a question from a summit attendee, Varner said one possible solution might be lowering the age for truck drivers to travel interstate.
“There are 18- and 19-year-olds driving big trucks in the military everyday,” he said.
While driverless cars may or may not become the wave of the future, Georgia Ports Authority General Manager of Economic and Industrial Development Stacy Watson said he doubts driverless trucks will become a reality anytime soon.
“You’re not going to see a driverless truck, what you are going to see is more automation within the truck,” he said. “You’re going to see automatic transmissions become more prevalent, so I think the trucking industry and the trucking manufacturers are making it much more competitive for an 18- or 19-year-old.”
Scearce suggested technical colleges — and even four-year universities — could be excellent partners for logistics and distribution industries.
“Chattahoochee Technical College has offered a logistics and supply chain management program for about five or six years,” she said. “Within the last year, Georgia Northwestern Technical College, Georgia Highlands College and Dalton State have come aboard to offer the same type of degrees as well. What they are doing is educating students on logistics is more than just the truck driving, there’s a really creative component to it where you’re learning how to manage the global supply chain system."
Meanwhile, Watson said initiatives targeting high school students, such as the Georgia Ports Authority Youth-learning Equipment and Safety (YES) program, might be the best way to fill the vacancies in tomorrow's logistics industry.
“We are basically going into the local high schools in Chatham County and surrounding counties and gauging interest in those students as far as exposing them to the logistics industry, training them when they come out of high school to accept them in the program — we’ll put them in warehouses, we’ll teach them how to learn to drive a truck, we’ll teach them how to operate a forklift,” he said. “Not everybody aspires to go to college and aspires to become a manager or an executive, and there are lots of opportunities to make a great living working in a warehouse, operating equipment.”