by Sean Killcarr, in Trucks at Work

taw031014aThere’s been a lot talk lately about the ongoing shortage of truck drivers in the U.S.

For example, a survey back in January found that the driver shortage is perhaps the top concern on the minds of many carriers these days.

Indeed, analysis of the truck driver situation presented during last year’s State of Logistics press event painted a pretty stark picture as well, with the annual report’s primary author, Rosalyn Wilson, noting that truck drivers represent a job category with the fewest potential workers trained to fill them, with only about 17% of the current driver population under age 35 and a far larger portion of the driver population reaching retirement age.

What to do about this issue? I touched on some of the new tactics being deployed by the industry in a news story last week but wanted to delve into the topic a bit more here based on an email exchange with two people on the cutting edge of this topic: Kent Ferguson, director of transportation solutions for global employment screening firm HireRight, and Mark Gardner, CEO at Avatar Management Services.

[As an aside, those two companies recently joined forces to integrate HireRight’s employment screening and drug testing solutions with Avatar’s Fleet Applicant Care program, which provides pre-employment driver-specific behavioral assessments and behaviorally-anchored interview kits designed to hire better drivers faster. The integration allows users to manage the entire hiring process from a single interface, including ordering, tracking, and managing employment screening, the two firms said in a joint statement.]

“To keep up with demand, an average of 96,000 drivers needs to be hired nationally every year,” HireRight’s Ferguson noted. “The market for drivers is tight and as the economy continues to improve, the situation will only get tougher.”taw031014b

Yet Avatar’s Gardner contends that the driver shortage “has been around since the dawn of deregulated trucking, but freight has never been left at the docks.” To him, this means there is always someone there to pick up the load.

“The best way to compete in today’s trucking environment is by fine-tuning internal operations and achieving higher levels of efficiency,” he explained. “There has been a general acceptance in the industry that outrageous recruiting budgets and high driver turnover are simply the cost of doing business. This pervasive belief is not substantiated by facts, but rather an entrenched myth. The shortage of quality drivers may be partially true, but there are more tools than ever to drive down costs by doing more with less.”

OK, but what to do about this shortage, whether it’s perceived or not?

HireRight recently conducted a survey to look at what methods carriers are using to both recruit and retain drivers. Surprisingly, what many are doing to try and attract new talent is similar to what they’ve been for years: Referrals (74%); online job boards (64%); print media (57%); attending job fairs (37%); plus referral bonuses to incentivize workers to refer friends and family, with 33% also using “sign-on” bonuses

However, Ferguson pointed out that carriers are now adding social media to the mix, with 25% of respondents reporting they use social networking for recruiting.

“While transportation is less likely to use social media than other industries overall, those that are using it are using it very effectively and are seeing significant success,” he said. “New technologies are improving recruiting efforts as more motor carriers are shortening their time-to-hire and improving their candidate experience by using solutions that integrate applicant tracking systems and employment screening.”

In particular, mobile technologies for both talent management and employment screening are also greatly reducing time and costs, thus making the process much easier and more convenient for driver candidates.

taw031014cFrom a retention standpoint, HireRight’s survey found that the top three methods motor carriers are employing to retain drivers are: increasing pay at 39%; upgrading equipment at 38%; and offering various incentive programs at 36%.

“Many carriers offer drivers bonuses for longevity, productivity and safety records,” Ferguson noted. “Some innovative new tactics for retention that the survey respondents reported include: providing flexible work arrangements so that employees can spend more time at home, and offering career advancement planning, which is especially crucial for entry-level drivers.”

In addition, motor carriers are developing programs to further cultivate personal connections with drivers to help keep them happy, with 12% of HireRight’s survey respondents appointing what are being called “driver liaisons” to serve as mentors/sounding boards for drivers to help improve communication and learn if drivers are experiencing any problems and give them an opportunity to voice their concerns.

“More innovative carriers have established owner-operator programs, especially financing programs to converts drivers to owner-operators,” Ferguson said, with 16% of those carriers polled by HireRight saying they offer such owner-operator-focused programs.

Yet Avatar’s Gardner stressed that three distinctions need to be made when “buzzwords” such as “recruiting” and “retention” get tossed around:

  • Recruiting is the process of finding and attracting more driver applicants and then interesting them into taking the next step, which is applying for a job. Before evaluating the efficacy of different mediums – carriers should start with their message. So many carriers say the same things that no one ends up standing out from the crowd. The driver interested in making a career is forced to select from a bevy of identical advertisements.
  • Social media is a “shiny new object” in the driver recruiting game, but before carriers get excited about it, they need to do basic blocking and tackling: Start with the right message and be sure your senior drivers agree that your value proposition true; dust off and constantly update the career page on the website; make it mobile friendly; evaluate what mediums (including social media) you want to use to drive traffic to your website; and if social media is part of the strategy, there needs to be a dedicated person who’s sole focus is to engage applicants and current drivers – it cannot be stagnant.
  • Hiring is the selection part of the process and completely separate from recruiting. Looking at MVRs (motor vehicle records), PSP (pre-employment screening) records, driving experience and background checks are great ways to start the evaluation process. Pre-employment, driver-specific psychometric assessments and structured interviews can also provide insights that allow the recruiter to select drivers who will more likely stay and perform better on the job.
  • Most carriers are afraid of tightening the applicant pool or becoming more restrictive even as they simultaneously admit that 80% of their problems are the result of bad hires. Successful carriers spend less on recruiting because they lose fewer drivers out the backdoor.
  • Honestly, retention starts with recruiting. It progresses to selecting the right applicants in a tough labor market. Proper orientation and training set the stage for success – greet the driver with a big hug, not the rule book. Once you give the driver the keys, keeping his or her wheels turning is the single biggest factor to determining if they’ll stay. There are hundreds of benefit tactics to add on, but keep them rolling along. Then, you can implement and evaluate various adjunct strategies to achieve even higher levels of retention.

HireRight’s Ferguson that carriers are beginning to branch out and look for potential driver candidates from some different venues, such as high school, technical school and community college graduates to help them successfully enter the transportation industry. In addition, industry employers are recruiting future workers through untapped labor pools, which include dislocated workers, transitioning military personnel, veterans and individuals with disabilities, he said.

“Forward-thinking carriers are opening up their own schools or partnering with community colleges for CDL [commercial driver’s license] classes,” added Avatar’s Gardner. “Many companies think that’s only for the large carriers but we’ve seen fleets under 200 power units investing in trainers to polish off green drivers fresh out of CDL school.”

Once carriers hire new drivers, though, how do they improve efforts to keep them? HireRight took an “inverse” look at the retention issue by polling carriers on the reasons why drivers said they LEFT their respective companies. The top reason (unsurprisingly, perhaps) is that drivers primarily leave to make more money (51%) yet also (again, unsurprisingly) to spend more time at home (41%).

Thus some carriers are trying some new things, with 15% telling HireRight that they are customizing jobs according to driver preferences, such as allowing drivers to have a five-day work week or to have regional routes.

Avatar’s Gardner, though, boils it down to simpler terms. “Keep drivers rolling – if you do that, they make more money,” he said. “But when drivers aren’t rolling, they better be home. New HOS [hours of service] rules make getting stuck on the road far more painful than ever. Get them out, keep them rolling and get them home. If you have effective dispatch procedures, competent decision makers and quality shippers/consignees you’ll enjoy lower driver turnover. And, you’ll be more profitable.”

Gardner believes the key is to hire drivers along specific freight lanes that get them home commensurate with their needs and wants, not the carrier’s. “Good equipment keeps them rolling and good CSA [compliance safety accountability] scores keep the carrier in line with regulatory requirements. Effective outcome-based training – not the ‘check the box’ strategy for compliance – prevents accidents, injuries, breakdowns and delays and also contributes to those wheels rolling.”

That’s when a fleet can pass on some of those profits to its drivers, helping keep high performers on board and attracting more drivers like them at higher wages. “It’s the reverse of the vicious cycle most carriers find themselves in today,” Gardner noted.

To read more blog posts from Sean Kilcarr's award-winning blog, "Trucks at Work", click here.