Filling those seats

Unless we address the real problems, driver recruitment is a waste of time

Last month, I talked about trucking’s continuing lack of long-haul drivers and the need to attract new candidates to fill those empty seats, as well as the barrier presented by the need to train large numbers of new entrants. But even if the industry finds a way to provide affordable, effective driver training—which is certainly possible—it still faces a much larger barrier to expanding its pool of drivers.

Let’s face it, the life of today’s long-haul, irregular route truck driver is not going to appeal to many people no matter how high the unemployment rate. Driving 11 hours in a 14-hour on-duty shift is a long day. Follow that with 10 hours parked in a truck stop or rest area (if you’re lucky enough to find an available spot), then repeat for six more days. Sitting for all that driving time combined with the high stress of piloting such a large, heavy vehicle in traffic and generally poor dietary choices on the road actively conspire against living a healthy lifestyle. Add in pay levels that aren’t any more attractive than those offered by local employers that let you go home every night to sleep in your own bed, and you have a job that’s going to be a tough sell for many potential candidates.

So who’d want this job? I think the answer starts with those who already do it well and enjoy it. Identifying your best drivers isn’t hard. Talk to them. Find out what it is about driving a truck that gives them satisfaction, that makes them strive to excel at this difficult job. In fact, there have been some fairly successful attempts to formalize this process and create screening tools that can identify candidates who share the attributes associated with those who excel at truck driving.

But finding those who have the attitudes and characteristics to thrive as drivers isn’t enough. Fleets still have to address the other two impediments that are keeping them from making real progress in addressing the driver shortage—the lifestyle and something you probably don’t want to hear, the pay. A number of fleets have already restructured their operations for shorter lengths of haul that get drivers home more often, which is at least a step in the right direction when it comes to making life as a truck driver more attractive. And in the last few years, driver health has gotten a good deal more attention as well, with a new emphasis on identifying health issues like sleep apnea and obesity, and providing drivers with education about the importance of good diet and exercise. Changing habits of experienced drivers won’t happen overnight, but creating a culture that recognizes and encourages healthy lifestyle choices will go a long way in convincing a broader spectrum of candidates that this could be a good career choice.

While making the job of truck driving appeal to a wider labor pool by improving the lifestyle is certainly an important step, the final and most difficult change the industry needs to confront is the reason people work—to make a decent living. As one extremely savvy and successful owner-operator told me recently, there’s a real shortage of drivers at $45,000 a year, but there’s none at $75,000.

I know the immediate reaction; you can’t afford to pay drivers at that scale given freight rates. But if freight is going to continue to move, and our economy with it, something has to change. And I think it’s inevitable that that change will be significantly higher pay for the long-haul truck driver.

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