by Sean Kilcarr
Many tactics are required now to recruit and retain truck drivers
It’s no secret that the trucking industry is suffering from a shortage of drivers. How to solve that shortage, however, is becoming something of a mystery as relatively low pay and the challenges posed by living on the road for long stretches are turning off many potential recruits.
The shortage is also becoming a more pressing concern to the industry as it shows little signs of abating. According to an American Trucking Assns. (ATA) white paper issued late last year, the current shortage of 20,000 to 25,000 drivers in the for-hire truckload (TL) market could grow to over 239,000 during the next 10 years if something isn’t done to address the issue.
“Carriers and fleet executives have begun expressing concern about their ability to identify and hire qualified professional drivers,” noted Bob Costello, ATA’s chief economist.
SHORTAGE COULD SPREAD
Right now, ATA thinks the bulk of the shortage is confined to long-haul, over-the-road TL carriers, but that private fleets and LTL carriers may also begin to experience difficulty finding, hiring and keeping drivers. Changes to hours of service (HOS) and the Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program in combination with industry growth, retirements and drivers leaving the industry will exacerbate the shortage.
“On average, trucking will need to recruit nearly 100,000 new drivers every year to keep up with demand for drivers, with nearly two-thirds of the need coming from industry growth and retirements,” Costello warned.
Gordon Klemp, president and founder of the National Transportation Institute (NTL), said in March that other factors could exacerbate the shortage further, including:
- Generous unemployment benefits (99 weeks) currently available to Americans.
- The burgeoning “underground economy,” which provides tax-free income resulting from part-time work such as mowing lawns, plowing snow, etc.
- The evolution of stricter driver hiring criteria relating to health, safety record, substance abuse history, etc.
- The intrusion of technology into the cab, which has the net effect of pushing away drivers who are uncomfortable with the “big brother effect” created by this technology.
- An aging driver population where more older drivers leave the industry than younger ones are being hired.
- The expansion of private fleets, which offer more regular routes, more home time, and greater annual compensation.
- The acute lack of “young blood” in the truck driver community as only 17% of the current population of truck drivers and owner-operators are 34 or below, while 51% are 45 or older.
“Clearly, not enough younger workers are being attracted to an industry which does not pay all that well,” Klemp explained, noting that driver wages in 2012 ranged from $37,400 to $57,939 per year. “It’s also an industry that requires a lot of time away from home, and which requires you to buy your own meals and other personal items while on the road,” he added.
“There’s a hole in our collective boat, and we’re doing little more than bailing,” stresses Duff Swain, president of the Trincon Group, a trucking consulting company. “The industry continues to fight high turnover rates, leaving companies scrambling with lost productivity while they recruit and retrain new drivers as fast as they leave. For many, it has become a revolving door.”
Swain adds that the industry has not defined a long-term solution or strategy to solve the problem, forcing individual companies to find their own solutions based on available resources. “Those companies that find solutions will be the winners,” he says. “Those that don’t will fail or go out of business as the industry continues to constrict and consolidate.”
Increasing driver pay is, of course, one place to start, and many carriers are engaging in such efforts—especially where “specialty” operations are concerned.
For example, in June, Schneider National boosted pay rates for company drivers serving in its tanker division 2¢ to 3¢ per mile, while offering for a limited time a $7,500 sign-on/on-boarding bonus to experienced drivers and driving school graduates willing to serve in its tanker division ranks.
Not only is offering higher pay a problem for many cash-strapped carriers, but fatter paychecks may not address all the issues a truck driver faces.
Swain notes that carriers must, in many cases, change their thinking about drivers; they must consider the driver position as a highly paid role that requires a high-quality applicant.
“This may constitute a radical change in mindset with many companies,” he says. “Many may make the excuse that those kinds of applicants are not available, but this is a cop-out. The fact is quality people are available, but they have become conditioned to be treated the same as poor quality people who are not given a chance to demonstrate their competence and reliability.”
So why do drivers leave? “They leave companies because they perceive a lack of communication and feel like they are not respected or valued,” Swain continues. “It is not just a pay issue. Time and time again trucking companies have increased pay only to find that the driver will still leave, blaming poor earnings. But the bottom-line issue is do drivers feel valued? Pay, of course, is a motivating force in non-competitive situations. But equalize the pay and you will find the problem still exists.”
That’s why Tyler LaBarge, managing partner for CDL Career Now, believes other tactics must be deployed in the effort to find and keep drivers for the long term.
First, new drivers in particular are probably dealing with loans that helped them pay for driver training courses—courses that don’t come cheap.
“Most drivers entering the trucking industry are already under some sort of financial stress,” LaBarge says. “That’s why it’s important for motor carriers of all sizes to help alleviate the students’ financial burdens through monthly tuition reimbursement payments. That will save on their driver turnover costs.”
A related effort focuses on canvassing a company’s current pool of employees to see if any are interested in piloting a truck for a living. For example, last year LTL carrier Saia began stepping up efforts to comb the ranks of its dockworkers to find employees with the right safety mindset and work ethic to help drive its fleet of 2,475 city and 1,820 linehaul tractor-trailers.
“There’s a great demand for drivers in this industry, but the advantage we see in recruiting from within is that we know the work ethic and mindset of those employees already,” notes Marty Ready, Saia’s vice president-human resources.
Ready says that workers displaying the right safe operating skills when using yard tractors to “hustle” trailers between dock locations are encouraged to attend local truck driving schools. Then, upon obtaining their commercial driver’s license (CDL), they get “finishing training” from Saia’s veteran drivers.
Ready adds that such “internally recruited” drivers also tend to be safer ones on average.
“That’s because they are people who are already instilled with our safety beliefs, who know and follow our policy and procedures from their experience on the dock,” he explains. “They handle the customer’s freight like it is theirs—because they know that’s where their paycheck comes from.”
Fellow LTL carrier Con-way Freight engaged in a similar effort in terms of recruiting from its dockworker ranks when it established its own national network of driver-training schools over three years ago.
Con-way’s 12-week driver-training program currently operates in 84 cities across the U.S. and is provided at no cost to candidates; students earn income as dockworkers while learning their new profession.
Investing in attractive and reliable equipment is another tactic in the driver recruitment and retention battle, says CDL Now’s LaBarge. “The reliability of equipment is important. Remember, when a truck is down, nobody is making money, with the exception of the tow truck and repair garage,” he stresses.
“The truck is the driver’s home and he or she is happier in better equipment,” he points out. “To take it one step further, perhaps fleet owners should ask the drivers for input on their truck order’s component specifications. ... the better accommodations they have, the better they will feel.”
Focusing on driver health and wellness plans is a priority for the industry. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), poor health is reducing the lifespan of the average trucker to 61 years, five years below the national average.
“Drivers need and deserve such attention. After all, they’re dealing with sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and obesity,” LaBarge explains. “So, carriers should sponsor a weight loss or nutrition program monthly or quarterly. Consider offering $1,500 to $2,000 annually for meeting all the health goals.
Trucking is a lifestyle change and isn’t for the faint of heart. There really should be measures in place to help keep the driver population healthy.”
Finally, LaBarge thinks offering a career path of some sort to drivers is a necessity, even if that path might eventually remove them from behind the wheel.
“It’s not uncommon to hear about a driver becoming a supervisor, a dispatcher, a trainer or a recruiter,” he explains. “Inform the drivers of their options and clearly state the expectations.”
That’s why Trincon’s Swain believes retention is a “multi-part process” that ideally begins with recruitment and moves forward through qualifying, screening and orienting a new employee, and then followed by a transition into the job, periodic reviews, accountability and recognition.
“Drivers want to be treated fairly. They want to know what is expected, whom they work for, how they are doing, how to resolve problems, and what is going on that will affect them,” he explains.
“It’s also unsettling that the trucking industry has not been successful in creating a career-conscious driver,” Swain emphasizes. “There has never been a career path associated with truck driving. And now the industry is running out of existing drivers and must attract new entries into trucking. If we attract them, and don’t keep them, what have we accomplished?”
“It’s a tough business with some extremely talented and dedicated professionals behind the wheels. They do deserve more respect, more pay, and more attention,” adds CDL Now’s LaBarge. “Pulling together, our industry as a whole can help create the next generation of drivers who are motivated, informed, well-trained and ready to succeed on the open road with pride.”