Deal with drivers as people first

Deal with drivers as people first

If you want to know what truck drivers have to say, it sure helps to ask them

If you want to know what truck drivers have to say, it sure helps to ask them.

Talk with owner-operator Jeff Armstrong, for example, and you’ll get a very clear idea of what’s driving many drivers out of trucking-- as well as what it will take to stem that tide.

Armstrong, 37, is leased to Muskogee, OK-based Indian Nation Express, a family-owned firm that runs just 15 trucks. He started driving 18 years ago and says he hopes to keep doing so for the simple reason that he loves it. His truck is a big purple Pete dubbed “Bubbles,” which gleams with chrome inside and out.

“I love the freedom of the road, being my own boss, seeing different places and meeting different people wherever I go,” he told FleetOwner. “Also, there’s never a dull moment in this business. It’s not like punching a time clock at all.”

Aside from the pure enjoyment Armstrong derives from shifting gears cross-country, he credits the respect and support he gets from Indian Nation Express with keeping him trucking. “I’ve worked for them for five years and they’re great,” he said. “They don’t push you and they give you 100% of the fuel surcharge they collect.”

Still, Armstrong admits trucking for a living is no picnic anymore. “It’s rough. I’m scrapping by like most drivers,” he said. “My truck payment is only $1,700 a month so I’m lucky there. But even getting all the fuel surcharge doesn’t make earning a living any easier.”

Indeed, trucking keeps striving to present the right mix of competitive pay and benefits, comfortable late-model equipment and reasonable working hours and company policies to keep attracting and keeping drivers.

Drivers have three priorities: get me rolling, get me paid and get me home,” Bulverde, TX-based trucking consultant Dan Baker explained in a recent seminar. “The problem is those three priorities conflict constantly. And those are little problems that get big in trucking because drivers spend lots of time outside the ‘wall’ of the company thinking about their problems. Their perceptions of problems becomes their reality, so fleets must manage how drivers perceive them.”

Chris Menning, a 29-year veteran driver now with Calkins Transportation out of Streator, IL, added another key priority to that mix: respect. “Fleets need to respect drivers as professionals, and that’s a two-way street as well,” he told FleetOwner. “Drivers need to dress and act professionally, but fleets need to treat them professionally, too.”

That “respect” goes beyond pay and home time, Menning stressed. It’s about how dispatchers and managers communicate with drivers, assign them loads and even extends to the equipment they drive.

“If you think of a driver as just a driver, you’re going to have problems,” added Rob Bowman, president & owner of Accelerated Freight Group, a 60-truck fleet based outside of Atlanta, GA. “But if you think of them as an outside sales consultant who’s in charge of customer relations, you’ll solve your retention problem.”

Bowman told FleetOwner that there are five key points that determine whether a driver stays or leaves a fleet: pay and benefits, home time, equipment, operations/dispatch and communications. “It’s like climbing a mountain,” he explained. “Pay and benefits form your ‘base camp.’ You must have this and be on a level playing field with the rest of the industry. That’s the first thing you look at,” he said.

That includes healthcare. Dallas, TX-based Greatwide Logistics Service, for example, just rolled out a new package of insurance products and related driver services designed to meet the unique needs of its owner-operators and their family members.

Ray Greer, Greatwide’s president & CEO, said the new plan offers $1 million of lifetime medical coverage that is similar to traditional major medical coverage, but at approximately 50% of the cost individual owner-operators typically pay on their own. Typical coverage for a driver, their spouse and two dependent children routinely costs $750 per month versus $1,500 for other plans.

“Owner-operators and agents have made it clear that the lack of a real healthcare program industry-wide is one of the main reasons they leave the driving profession,” Greer noted.

But that doesn’t undercut the importance of home time. “The day of the ‘month out’ driver is all but dead,” said Bowman, who started out loading and unloading trucks himself at age 16 before joining the U.S. Army, where he learned to drive trucks. After his military service, he got his CDL and became an owner-operator. “People want to stay home – they want to be with their families.”

Equipment also remains a top issue. Calkins’s Menning noted that he drives a top-of-the-line Peterbilt 379, something that is key to his job satisfaction.

“Back to the mountain-climbing analogy, you need the right equipment to do the job,” said Bowman. “You need to give a driver a truck that can run 3,500 miles a week and that will be their ‘home away from home’ on the road. They want air-ride suspensions to be comfortable, a big sleeper with lots of room, CD players and on-board navigation devices to help them find their way. Drivers love electronic gadgets,” he said.

But that truck had better be reliable too. “You’ll be pissing in the wind if that truck ends up in the shop a lot,” Bowman stressed. “Drivers don’t earn income if the truck is in the shop.”

Finally, there’s dealing with dispatchers and communication issues, said Bowman. Problems on that end can undermine all the pay, home time and equipment benefits a fleet may have on the table. “We’re talking emotions here – people get upset over things and then leave,” he explained. “That’s why communication is so important. You can never have too much. You need to listen to drivers and make sure they understand their opinion matters.”

To comment on this article, write to Sean Kilcarr at [email protected]

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