Hire & Higher

Whether or not your fleet has a driver shortage may depend more on hiring methods and development programs than on the state of the labor poolMany fleets continue to insist that attracting and retaining top talent is their single biggest challenge. Yet the driver shortage remains too convenient an excuse for companies that lack innovation in driver recruiting strategies - which have become even more

Whether or not your fleet has a driver shortage may depend more on hiring methods and development programs than on the state of the labor pool

Many fleets continue to insist that attracting and retaining top talent is their single biggest challenge. Yet the driver shortage remains too convenient an excuse for companies that lack innovation in driver recruiting strategies - which have become even more glaring in today's full-employment economy.

It's not just trucking that's feeling the pinch. For the first time in a generation, a nationwide survey of small business owners found their top problem is finding qualified employees. Jobs that require person-to-person interaction will grow faster than any other job sector - and much faster than the available labor pool, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Talk to fleets that understand they're in the people business and that people are their most important asset, and you begin to understand why they're successful. As a rule, they have progressive driver recruiting and development programs, and report better retention rates.

So what makes the good so much better than the rest? It begins with a commitment to understand and empower drivers. Evidence of that can be seen in dispatcher-driver relationships, the way drivers treat equipment, and even how comfortable drivers feel about approaching top management.

In fact, the word "driver" itself has fallen out of vogue in today's corporate lexicon. Successful companies now talk about "customer service representatives."

At Bridgestone/Firestone, for instance, drivers are an integral part of the company's goal to deliver "top notch" customer service, according to senior private fleet manager Ron Tartt. The fleet can play an important role in acquiring new customers, enhancing existing relationships, making up for service failures, and delivering service in a way that "thrills" customers, says Tartt.

In order to exceed customer expectations, Tartt says that you first need to know what the customer wants. The second prong of his strategy involves listening to his drivers and using them to boost customer service.

Tartt has invested in mobile communications and satellite tracking, providing instant access to the driver and information about load status that can increase equipment utilization. Drivers can also keep in touch with customers regarding arrival time, en-route delays, and dock scheduling.

Keeping drivers happy means understanding what motivates them and what doesn't. First of all, today's drivers are increasingly educated and far more entrepreneurial. One company reports that 40% of its drivers have some college education. This makes a difference in how you manage and motivate them.

Increasing pay Drivers are also being paid more - a lot more. The typical over-the-road driver is pulling 32 cents-40 cents/mile. According to The NationalSurvey of Driver Wages, 80% of the top 100 carriers have increased wages an average of 10% over the past two years. Fleets are also guaranteeing drivers enough miles to capture the full value of the compensation package.

David Goodson, president of Signpost Inc., Hudson, Wis., which conducts the National Survey, says: "The pay range for drivers in OTR, for-hire fleets is now in the mid- to upper-$30,000 range. Drivers in comparable private fleets tend to make more, as much as $45,000 to $90,000."

But money is not the only way to empower the work force. According to research conducted by the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, drivers also attain satisfaction from a sense of achievement and recognition. Drivers want support from the company while on the road, and they want to feel that managers genuinely care about them.

For example, many of today's drivers worry about family issues and perceive themselves as less successful in balancing work and family roles.

In addition, new driver-friendly equipment can boost morale. When Kim Masters took over as transportation manager of Ohio Valley Goodwill's private fleet in 1991, she realized that it needed to be upgraded quickly. Today, the fleet includes two Kenworth T800s, three T300 tractors, and seven T300 straight trucks.

The new vehicles helped Goodwill build its team of drivers and win community support. "When I came here, we could hardly get a driver to sit in one of our old trucks," says Masters. "The newness of our Kenworths has been appealing." Masters also spec'd items with high driver appeal such as air conditioning, air-ride suspensions, air-suspended seats, and 5,000-lb.-capacity lift gates.

In addition to safe, clean equipment, drivers are looking to advance their careers. While not all paths lead to management, there are other ways to "advance" drivers: regular schedules; more home time; driver classification; and participation in management issues such as training, recruiting, benefits, spec'ing, customer service, and dispatch.

For instance, Domino's Pizza set up a career path for drivers. A certified driver trainer program was expanded to include a more rigorous level - master certified driver trainer. It's a move that has paid off handsomely in terms of reduced severity of accidents.

The certified driver trainer program is open to those with one year on the job, two years without a preventable accident, 12 months without an hours-of-service violation, and no criminal history, alcohol or drug convictions, or disciplinary issues.

To achieve the higher "master" designation, a driver must have two years' experience as a certified driver trainer, meet all the regular requirements, plus work in community safety programs, and be recommended by top management. Masters training involves a three-day regimen of classroom and in-cab work. Perhaps just as important as skills are the attitudes "masters" can convey to other drivers.

Many fleets have also found unique ways to recognize and reward performance. In addition to safe driving, operators are being rewarded for on-time records, reduced cargo loss and damage, fuel efficiency, and good-samaritan acts.

When it came time to polish what is already a sterling safety operation, Praxair, a Danbury, Conn.-based distributor of industrial gases, turned to its driving force to help the fleet reach its "Zero/Zero" standard: no accidents and no injuries. "We have individual drivers with accident-free records. We have individual locations that have been at zero-zero for years," says Bob Inderbitzen, senior project manager for national trucking operations and chairman of the National Private Truck Council's safety committee.

To transform these individual successes into system-wide success, Inderbitzen surveyed drivers and mechanics and, importantly, followed through on recommendations. Since 42% of his drivers said fatigue was the primary factor in accidents, fatigue training will be added to the fleet's driver program.

Walk the talk But what all successful driver programs have in common is effective communication. Drivers want information personally and directly, including open- door policies that allow drivers to talk to top management at any time.

We know what motivates drivers, but what are the turnoffs? They detest poor working conditions, including time away from home, company speed limits, freight-handling chores, slip-seating, lousy roads, and interference from state and federal law enforcement.

Companies that fail to understand the driver culture often experience poor driver attitude, lower customer service, decreased productivity, hostility between drivers and dispatchers, and, ultimately, driver turnover. In today's market, that's a loss that may be all but impossible to recover from.

"Carriers must make progress on two fronts to slow the revolving door of drivers coming and going," says SignPost's Goodson. "One is to develop a positive relationship with the drivers during the recruiting process and the first 30 days on the job. The second is to have recruiters hire drivers who are more likely to stick around." (See Editor's Page, p.6 , for Goodson's tips on creating a great first impression.)

Most recruiters spend too long talking with applicants who are not good candidates. This means they're going to miss the calls that come in from those with more potential, Goodson explains. To make good hiring decisions, recruiters need to improve their ability to qualify drivers, he adds.

How do effective recruiters identify job jumpers? "The most important factor is seeing if the driver has realistic expectations about the rigors of the job. Early on in the interview process, the best recruiters ask some probing questions that help them understand the driver's attitude," he says. Here are some examples:

* What are the most important things you're looking for in a carrier?

* Why did you leave your last job?

* Why do you like driving a truck for a living?

* How do you feel about shippers?

* How do you feel about dispatchers?

The answers to these questions can help recruiters weed out those applicants who don't merit the fleet's time.

"The final suggestion we make to clients looking to improve their recruiters' effectiveness," Goodson says, "is to institute a reward system for recruiters that's based on how long a new hire stays on the job."

How much does it cost when a driver leaves a company? A traditional rule of thumb figure is $3,000-$5,000 for every driver that walks. This includes the cost of drug and alcohol tests, background checks, orientation, driver manuals, training, ads, uniforms, etc.

But fleets must also absorb a number of indirect costs when drivers leave: The morale of existing workers crumbles; productivity often slips, as does customer service and safety; and work is left undone. And once word gets out that you're not driver-friendly, recruiting becomes even more difficult. While it's hard to put a price tag on all this, one private fleet estimates that the real cost of turnover could easily approach $15,000 a driver.

The best way to avoid this is to avoid making bad hiring decisions. This means putting a pro-active hiring strategy in place. Instead of trusting your gut, establish a process that's clearly defined, systematic, manageable, and achieves the desired results.

"Employers who successfully retain their best people have one thing in common," says Mel Kleiman, author of "Hire Tough, Manage Easy," and head of Humetrics, which specializes in pre-employment testing and selection. "They hire right in the first place."

Kleiman suggests that you ask yourself some basic questions: Who are your best drivers and why? Why do you lose some of the good drivers? Who is your competition and what do they offer that you don't?

Next, set about defining the technical and behavioral requirements of the job and performance expectations. A recruiting plan should detail how you plan to attract candidates and determine how aggressive you need to be.

Any or all of the following can be used to recruit drivers: truck-driving schools, employment services, trailer signs, newspapers, trade shows, press releases, the Internet, truck stops, radio and TV, direct mail, and billboards. Your current pool of drivers and employees is another good source of driver applicants.

With the Internet doubling in volume every six months, it's not surprising to find the top carriers out on the Web recruiting drivers. One truckload operation attracts between 100 and 125 driver responses to the information published on the Internet every week. "After screening, we send out about 50 applications," says the recruiting director. "Only the issue of how to obtain a valid signature prevents us from taking a complete application over the Web."

Transition to work Once a candidate clears the application process, transition to the workplace begins. The first step is orientation, a process designed to teach new hires about rules and procedures, as well as what is expected of them - all in a positive environment. The best orientation programs are individualized and include participation by top management.

Effective programs should cover customers, company policies, job requirements and expectations, and dispatch procedures. New employees should also receive a driver handbook that spells out information clearly and concisely, with a supporting handbook for spouses. The latter could provide information on benefits packages and emergency contacts. It's important for fleets to help spouses feel like part of the company family, too.

Training Next comes training and development. Training should be designed to change performance through learning. Be forewarned, however: Once you start down this training road, there's no turning back. Drivers will quickly grow disillusioned if companies show signs of backing away from their commitment to training.

Driver development addresses issues such as motivation, satisfaction, work ethic, commitment, and attitudes.

Driver training and development can be based in a variety of departments -- safety, human resources, or even outside organizations. The bottom line is that when a fleet's services to its drivers improve, job satisfaction and driver retention rates improve.

If training programs are being developed by an outside source, make sure to ask whether the material is relevant to your operation. Check out references, verify costs, and determine whether there is any warranty associated with the program.

Regardless of whether training is conducted in-house or out, companies see paybacks in terms of lower turnover, enhanced skills, increased productivity, higher profitability, reduced maintenance, improved customer relations, and reduced accident rates.

Training can be broken down into a number of different levels:

* Entry level. Although there's no federal mandate yet, the government continues to investigate the need to develop one. So savvy companies are already training new hires who have little or no experience.

* Ongoing or remedial. This includes refresher courses that help drive home the most appropriate use of skills. They may be needed when drivers change loads or equipment, or when they commit an infraction or have an accident that mandates such followup.

* Skills improvement. This involves teaching new skills so that employees can do different tasks, as well as helping them do a better job in their current position.

* Life-skills training. Don't overlook value-added training that provides drivers with information on industry issues, savings and investments, and retirement planning.

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