N. LITTLE ROCK, AR. A steady flow of truck drivers took advantage of their midday break periods to follow the “Free Lunch” signs to the front parking lot at the Petro on I-40 here, where tents provided some relief from the late summer heat and where dozens of volunteers, TA-Petro staff, and performers said “thank you” during the Arkansas Trucking Assn.’s annual Truck Driver Appreciation day event.
“One of the top three reasons drivers leave a company is they get no appreciation,” says Arkansas Trucking Assn. Chairman Butch Rice, President and CEO of the Stallion Transportation Group, as he waives a sign at passing drivers, shouting over diesel engine noise and truck horns to invite them stop in. “That’s a big deal to the them—a pat on the back.”
And “it’s time,” he says, as fleets struggle to keep seats filled—and then pay a high price to replace drivers who leave. Stallion, which runs 74 company-owned trucks, has an annual turnover rate of 81 percent, Rice reports—well below the national average, but still significant enough to be very concerned about.
The problem for most fleets, he suggests, is that management is “wrapped up” in handling regulatory compliance and other operational issues. Rice says carriers need to have someone on staff dedicated to driver appreciation “to do it right.” At Stallion, the company hosts monthly driver recognition events and maintains a company store for free merchandise, and they’ve also upgraded equipment, added benefits, and make sure drivers get home.
But part of the problem is how easy it is for driver’s to leave, he notes.
“There’s not too many industries where you can quit at 8 o’clock and be working somewhere else by 12,” Rice says, then notes it’s not unusual to get applications from drivers with work histories from a half dozen companies over the past couple of years—and, if they’re qualified, it’s hard to turn them down. “You could do a hundred loads perfect, but if the driver has one bad day, they know they can turn a truck in and go right down the street and get another job. We have to mind our ‘P’s and ‘Q’s and we work at it.”
Indeed, driver retention is a two-way street, agrees Gary Jaworski, a driver for Walmart Transportation and a member the Arkansas Road Team.
For Jaworski, the most important thing a company can do to show appreciation is to make good on home-time promises.
“People really want to spend more time with their families, to stay connected with the people they love,” he says. “Most drivers love their jobs, but they love their families more.”
He’s been with Walmart for 25 years, and he believes driving jobs for Walmart are sought after not just for the industry-leading pay, but because pay is just one way the company “treats us with respect.”
“They’re always asking, ‘what can we do to make your job better?’” Jaworski says. “If we have an issue or have a problem, they’re there to resolve that issue. And it doesn’t always work out in our favor, but they look at ways to make sure we’re happy and the customers are happy. There’s a mutual respect—that’s one reason I continue to work there.”
This year’s Driver Appreciation Day would feed some 600 truckers, estimates ATA President Shannon Newton. As an association leader, she tries to keep members informed as to best practices for retaining drivers—and she points out the driver appreciation event pre-dates any driver shortage. She adds that volunteers turn out to serve the drivers each year knowing that very few of the hot dogs, hamburgers, and gift bags are going to Arkansas truckers.
More important than picnics, however, is the need for state and national trucking associations to educate the public about the critical role professional drivers play in the economy.
“People need to understand the lifestyle, and that drivers choose to make a living doing this—they need to understand that there are human beings involved, people with families, that are driving those trucks that are delivering the groceries,” Newton says. “It’s important to overcome the perception of the industry, which is sometimes negative by default. If we’re successful, people will be more empathetic and more appreciative of drivers—and that benefits everyone.”