The economic recovery is just beginning to gain some momentum, but the driver shortage that eased up during the downturn has already returned in force. Every day there's another report of a truckload carrier raising driver pay 10 to 15% in an effort to attract and retain experienced drivers. Turnover among linehaul drivers is the highest it's been since the recession started in 2008, and no one is expecting it to do anything but continue climbing.
The reasons for the rapid return of the driver problem are well understood. Many drivers left the industry as truckload carriers in particular shrank operations or simply shut their doors. New hours-of-service regulations and better enforcement of those work rules have reduced the productivity of the remaining drivers. And the new CSA monitoring system, which rates both fleets and drivers for the first time, will further shrink the pool of experienced drivers considered employable by most fleets.
In addition to raising pay, fleets are responding to the returning shortage by resurrecting recruitment departments shuttered during the last two years. At the Mid-America Trucking Show, recruiters from almost every major TL carrier filled a hall, touting their mileage rates, benefits and family-friendly work schedules as they attempted to lure other fleets' drivers to fill their empty seats.
In other words, it's back to business as usual in the battle to find qualified truck drivers. Fleets are using the same tactics, the same approaches that didn't work in the past, expecting to get better results. Why hasn't someone come up with an entirely new approach to attracting and keeping good drivers?
I'm certainly not the first to ask that question, but I still haven't seen a serious attempt by any fleet to answer it. It's time for someone to step up with some truly creative ideas about compensating and keeping drivers, ideas that completely change the way fleets think about drivers.
Maybe it takes someone outside the day-to-day responsibilities of running a fleet to spark that creative thinking. Although he's an engineer involved in developing lubrication and related chemical products, Gary Parsons of Chevron has been around trucking and fleets for most of his career. When I saw him recently, he posed just such a question: “What would happen if the trucking industry had a major paradigm shift and started paying drivers on an hourly or annual basis rather than per mile?”
Not only would that make a driver's pay more predictable, but it would signal a meaningful change in a driver's status within the fleet. If you're paid by the mile, you're simply an extension of the truck and the freight in the trailer. But if you're paid by the hour or on a salary, you're part of the company that recognizes your value extends far beyond just delivering the freight. It acknowledges that they're the ones on the front lines who will be protecting your CSA rating, who are directly interacting with your customers, who need to manage and plan their time carefully to maximize productivity.
Maybe the answer isn't hourly pay. Maybe it's profit sharing or an employee equity plan that increases drivers' engagement with the fleet without raising take-home pay and payroll taxes. Or maybe there's an entirely different approach waiting for one fleet manager's aha moment. Whatever that idea is, whoever has the insight and conviction to throw out the old, failed approaches and try something really new is going to be the ultimate winner in this next era of driver shortages.