Trucks at Work

The growing struggle to find and keep the “best”

There’s an awful lot being written in the trucking trades and general media about the increasing shortage of truck drivers – especially how difficult it’s increasingly becoming to find anyone willing to pilot a big rig for a living.

Of course, many veteran drivers – and industry experts – will tell you it’s really not all that hard to solve the so-called “driver shortage,” for to their minds it really revolves around pay.

From where they sit, then, simply offer a paycheck that makes it worth staying out of the road three weeks at a time – often out of touch of family and friend – and you won’t have a problem filling those vacant truck driving jobs at all.

Yet from where I sit, I think it’s more complicated than that. One of the big issues surround the truck driving professional is that it’s still officially tagged with the label “unskilled work” by the Department of Labor – and, rightly or wrongly, I believe that characterization of a job whereby an individual must pilot an 80,000 pound (or more) big rig at high speed along crowded highways in all sorts of poor conditions as “unskilled” is a great disservice to the profession.

Thus for those fleets (and there are quite a few of them) that believe not just any driver will do behind the wheel, as the risks to life, limb, and cargo are very high indeed, it’s not just about filling vacant positions: it’s about filling vacant positions with folks with the sharpest skills, the one who live and breathe safety, and who deliver loads far and wide with the best fuel economy and lowest amount of equipment wear and tear possible – day after day after grinding day.

Yet finding – and keeping – the “best of the best” isn’t as simple as waving more dollars around than anyone else. Indeed, all sorts of industries are finding it an ever-greater challenge to locate and retain workers for the long term who not only possess the right set of skills but the right “mind set” as well.

Indeed, a recent global survey by professional services firm Towers Watson and WorldatWork, an international human resource association discerned that a vast majority of companies worldwide – including a growing number of U.S. companies – continues to struggle with attracting and retaining the high-potential and critical-skill employees necessary to increase their global competitiveness.

The Global Talent Management and Rewards survey they conducted also found that employees are experiencing high levels of stress, a trend that many employers and employees expect to continue for the next three years.

Towers Watson and WorldatWork polled 1,605 companies globally, including 278 from the U.S. for thie survey and found that nearly three-fourths of respondents (72%) cite problems attracting critical-skill employees, while roughly six in 10 employers are having difficulty attracting high-potential and top-performing workers (60% and 59%, respectively).

In the U.S., the number of employers having difficulty attracting employees with critical skills increased for the third consecutive year, to 61%, nearly the same percentage as in 2005 and 2006, when economic growth was stronger and unemployment rates were significantly lower. More than half of all respondents also reported difficulty retaining critical-skill, high-potential and top-performing employees, noted Laura Sejen with Towers Watson.

“The demand for the best talent is as strong as ever, especially given a challenging economy and heightened global competition,” she said. “But many employers are not taking advantage of opportunities to attract, retain and engage high-value employees by offering a work environment and the total rewards programs that are most important to them.”

In fact, Sejen added, there appears to be a “mismatch” between what employers are offering and what employees are looking for. “Employees, including top talent, are more focused on competitive base pay and job security, [while] employers, on the other hand, are emphasizing other items, such as challenging work, and their mission, vision and values,” she said.

The study also found that employees continue to experience high levels of stress at work. Close to half (48%) of respondents indicate that employees often experience excessive pressure in their job, and more than half (53%) report their employees worked more hours than normal during the past three years – and nearly as many (43%) expect to maintain that pace for the next three years.

In the U.S., stress levels are even higher, with 61% saying that employees at their organization often experience excessive pressure on the job. Nearly three in four (71%) U. S. participants say employees are working more hours, while almost two-thirds (63%) expect that trend to continue over the next three years.

Now here’s an interesting finding: In what Sejen called “a frank acknowledgement” of the challenges in getting performance management right, only half (51%) of U.S. respondents believe their performance management process effectively links salary increases to individual performance results, compared to 62% of global companies.

Even fewer — 44% of U.S. employers — believe they effectively link bonus payouts to individual performance, versus 65% of companies globally. When asked to rate the effectiveness of managers in the performance management process, U.S. employers were even more negative, with employees at U.S. companies viewing their managers as significantly less effective at setting individual performance goals (37% vs. 52%), giving employees regular coaching and feedback (24% vs. 39%) and conducting career development discussions (19% vs. 33%).

“As U.S. employers seek to grow profitably during a period of economic volatility, their focus needs to be on crafting an employee value proposition that helps to attract and retain talented and critical-skill employees while also engaging the broader workforce,” noted Laurie Bienstock, another executive at Towers Watson.

“Plus, organizations need to position themselves for future success over the next five to 10 years," she pointed out. "Effective leadership development, performance management and succession-planning programs will be keys to getting it right. U.S. employers give themselves lower marks compared to the global norms and need to take action to strengthen the process and outcomes.”

From where Ryan Johnson, vice president of research and publishing for WorldatWork, sits the companies best suited to find and retain the “best workers” as the ones willing to realize that engagement is a “two-way street” in his words.

“They actively listen to employees and then tailor total rewards packages that ensure the work is invigorating, satisfying and truly rewarding in more ways than just pay,” he said.

One thing is for sure: trucking may need to come up with a brand new playbook to address the recruiting and retention challenges it’s facing now and in the future. 

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