Changing view of drivers

Many trucking companies today – large and small alike – continue to struggle with ways to both find and keep drivers for the long haul.

“Growth is our biggest challenge right now and driver retention is a huge part of that,” Brian Brown, national account manager for flatbed operations at Missouri-based truckload carrier Prime Inc., told FleetOwner. “All parts of the trucking industry are struggling with the same thing-- how to make driving a truck more desirable.”

It’s a struggle, however, that could be easing a little bit from the acute situation of the past year – giving fleets some much-needed breathing room to take stock in how they manage drivers.

Nashville-based economic forecasting firm FTR Associates projects slowing freight growth in 2005 could allow fleets to work off some of the record driver shortage that occurred during the last 18 months. It predicts that the driver shortage will continue to shrink, with 2005 ending with a shortfall of 33,000 drivers, down from the estimated cumulative shortage of 300,000 during 2003-2004.

However, the firm cautions that any upturn in freight demand will reverse this trend and significantly impact the industry’s need for additional drivers. And the ability to put drivers in vehicles has a major impact on individual fleet and industry expansion plans, FTR said.

For Prime’s flatbed division, Brown said the driver shortage situation is more manageable – to a degree – because the boom in freight demand over the last year has allowed Prime to dedicate capacity on fixed runs for shippers at good rates, giving its drivers predictable pay and home time with minimal non-driving labor.

“Predictability combined with little manual labor is a great retention tool,” he explained. “It’s really a ‘can’t miss’ situation for us; it keeps our drivers happy and has really helped boost our service levels for customers as well.”

Dale Lawless, president of Lowell, AR-based driver retention consulting firm LPS Inc., said the industry must refocus its resources to improve the lot of drivers, much the way it has done to improve its trucks and business technology.

“For the last 10 to15 years, there has been a large amount of money and time put into technology that has made trucking profitable and streamlined,” he told FleetOwner. “For example, almost every company has some type of on-board computer system now; computers that allow management to communicate efficiently with truckx, monitoring fuel mileage, idle time, logbooks, pre-plans and many other subsystems instantaneously.”

But he said the one area in which things have not changed is the human element that operates the truck. “We still have the driver who, by the way, is the only individual who is required to have a professional certification to work in the industry,” Lawless said. “That driver is just now getting the recognition that has fallen behind in the pursuit of managing the easy systems.

“The way drivers are initiated into a company will be the first impression of how the company they’ve joined will treat them,” Lawless warned. “What type of rooms are they staying in? Is the food decent? Is there clean, reliable transportation to and from the company? Are the trucks assigned to new drivers clean and operational? Is someone tracking their miles the first 30 days and making sure their pay is correct? Has someone called their spouse to verify the emergency number is correct and answer any questions about the company? Does the company ensure the home-time policy is enforced?”

He said how a company – no matter the size – starts out handling these issues often affects how long the driver sticks around. “It’s important that everyone who encounters a driver understands how a trucking company makes or loses money,” Lawless said. “How we manage drivers is a larger problem than most companies are willing to admit as dispatchers are the lifeline of the driver.”

Lawless said how well a driver performs is a direct reflection of the ability of his or her dispatcher to manage people. “I visited a company recently where one dispatcher had gone through 38 drivers in two months,” he said. “When asked about this turnover, the dispatcher said, ‘They were not any good.’ Yet other dispatchers within the company had less than 33% turnover. It’s all about good management of drivers.”

“Drivers are the key to our industry. They are the front-line infantry, the ones the customer sees every day,” Charlie Ring, director of business development for California-based bulk hauler Ventura Transfer told FleetOwner. “Not just drivers, but the right drivers – the ones that have safety and the customer in mind.”

Ventura, a 130-year-old company, employs 50 drivers – half owner-operators and half company drivers . It has a less than a 2% turnover rate, said Ring, due mainly he believes to how the firm interacts with them.

“We don’t have anything to offer a customer but that guy and a truck; they are the face of our company,” Ring explained. So to make sure there’s a good fit, Ventura focuses closely on the hiring process followed by a four- to five- week orientation course. “It takes a lot longer to find the right driver upfront this way, but when we find them and the individual is here, they stay here,” he said.

“Not only has recruiting changed, but retention has as well,” added Lawless of LPS. “Trucking companies are putting retention programs under the microscope because even though most meet their goals for hiring, they have tremendous turnover. Most trucking management is aware of this imbalance -- and the smart ones are doing more to retain drivers.”

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