Quality employees are the ones most concerned about their future employment and the least interested in sticking with a dead-end job
Of course, this is not a new idea. Companies of all stripes in all types of industries routinely attract and keep qualified — and quality — employees by offering more than just good pay.
This recruitment/retention strategy is not unknown in trucking — UPS for one is famous for how it moves people up through its organization, benefiting them and the company. Indeed, fostering a career path for drivers is more likely practiced by fleets in segments other than truckload, where seeking and keeping drivers is a drag on growth and a significant operational cost.
Yet offering drivers some sort of defined career path and/or making it clear a fleet is open to advancing them beyond the driver's seat is no silver bullet to cure the driver shortage. Better to think of it as another arrow in the quiver of the savvy fleet manager committed to slaying this management beast.
But why would offering a career path to drivers matter and what is actually meant by such an approach?
Duff Swain, president of trucking consultancy Trincon Group, is experienced at aiding client fleets to improve their driver retention rates and recently designed a career-path approach he calls a professional driver career program.
“Drivers leave companies because they perceive a lack of communication and feel like they are not respected or valued,” Swain contends. “It is not a pay issue. Equalize the pay and you will see the [turnover] problem still exists. In general, companies do not treat drivers well. At least that is what drivers say and their perception is the reality we have to face.”
Swain calls it “unsettling” that by and large trucking has not created a “career conscious” driver. “Historically, drivers make a ‘lifestyle’ rather than a ‘career’ choice and so do not identify readily with opportunities for professional growth and self-improvement on the job.”
In practice, a driver career path can follow two avenues but these need not be mutually exclusive. The most straightforward path is to formalize and recognize the progression any good driver will make at a fleet — from new hire to seasoned pro — with the idea being to make him or her feel truly a part of the organization and thus engender a desire to stick with and grow with the team.
Drivers can be availed of a wider career road as well by making them aware they will be considered for lateral moves within the fleet, such as to dispatch, safety or training slots, as well as to supervisory roles, such as driver-manager, and eventually to management positions.
Of course, such a liberal career path program or policy must be communicated and managed properly so it's fully understood both by those implementing it and those it would benefit. In other words, you can't promise drivers a shot at the corner office without making the way there plain as day to them and to all with whom they work or report — now and in the future.
That is a perhaps daunting proposition to put in place and no doubt some drivers would not qualify for such advancement and others frankly may not be interested. On the other hand, no matter how many drivers take advantage of such a program, having it on the books could have something of a “halo effect,” demonstrating to all drivers how seriously their potential contributions to the organization are valued.
For most fleets, putting forth a career path program primarily geared toward the driver who is likely to want to continue driving for years to come is likely to have the biggest and quickest impact on driver turnover. The goal as always is to keep that quality driver driving for you and not headed out the door for a spin somewhere else.
No matter how widely or narrowly a driver career path program is pitched, the whole idea is to explain to drivers they will enjoy the rewards of upward mobility as they progress professionally with a fleet.
According to Swain, this upward mobility can comprise recognizing new and existing drivers for their experience, performance, skills and tenure with the fleet. “A new hire or an existing driver with five or more years experience has more value than a driver with just a year or two,” he points out. “They should be compensated and recognized for that accomplishment.”
Experienced or not, new hires should have a “progression path” and accompanying expectations defined for them,” says Swain. For example, he says new hires should “graduate” from orientation instead of having it viewed as something to “get through” and all new hires should be on probation for 90 days and live up to specific standards to be taken on permanently.
From there, a progressive path can be laid out to reward drivers with increased pay levels, awards and other recognition befitting their growing skill or expertise.
Peer recognition is a key part of all this. While no one needs to know who is making what, a driver's status within the fleet can be communicated by progressively conferring titles in line with their accomplishments and any extra duties they may assume along the way such as training fellow drivers. A range of titles might start with Driver Trainee and go on to include Senior Driver, Driver Specialist, Team Captain and Driver Trainer, reflecting the roles performed at a given fleet.
For one client, a bulk hauler of primarily cement, lime and chemicals fielding a 270-tractor fleet, Swain has devised a six-level “Professional Truck Driver Career” program that recognizes drivers for their time in grade from day one to the start of the 11th year of employment but is predicated also on the driver meeting specific standards at each level before advancing to the next.
Along with recognition elements, such as a certificate and special hat for the driver and a present for their family, when a driver reaches the 3rd and higher levels, he or she receives a “small” raise in pay or one-time bonus.
Under this scheme, new hires come in at Level 1, “Transportation Specialist Applicant” (TSA), and remain there for 90 days. Drivers with more than three years prior experience would start with this designation too but also receive a “small but meaningful perk” at the get-go, says Swain.
To reach Level 2, “Transportation Specialist Professional” (TSP), the driver must pass the 90-day probationary period as well as a general orientation course and an 85-plus day in-field orientation program (designed for this fleet).
Level 2, which runs from the 91st day to the end of the second year of employment, is where it gets interesting. “The idea here,” says Swain, “is whether the new recruit can buy into and follow the company culture or excellence.”
So, it's spelled out that while at Level 2, the driver must meet certain requirements including: mileage minimum, minimum number of work days per week; no moving violations; safety standards; maintenance standards; fuel standards; log maintenance standards; customer relations standards; on-time delivery standards; alcohol and drug standards, and complete on-line, self-study or classroom training courses.
Swain says the training courses might cover such areas as how a fleet makes it profit, what to do during a DOT inspection, fuel cost control, benefits of preventive maintenance, and the driver's role in customer retention.
Level 3, “Transportation Specialist Pro-Silver” (TSPS), starts with the third year and is the first level carrying added pay and perks. With each new level, it should be noted, the pay and perks awarded grow a little larger.
Level 4, “Transportation Specialist Pro-Gold” (TSPG) begins with the fourth year, as long as all the previous standards have continued to be met.
Level 5, “Transportation Specialist Pro-Platinum,” (TSPP) is presented when the sixth year is reached, again if the standards are still being met.
Level 6, Master Transportation Specialist” (MTS), is the pinnacle and is awarded with the eleventh year of employment if, again, all the standards are met.
So, a driver signing on with this fleet will do so with a clear view of where he'll be headed and, just as important, what will be expected of him and his employer.
Swain also suggests fleets, as many do, additionally recognize drivers for their safety performance by instituting a “Million Miler Club” with recognition and cash perks awarded for each million miles without a preventable accident.
But wait, there's more. Swain says fleets can also award drivers certification as “specialists” based on the type of equipment they operate or even how they operate, such as haz-mat, reefer, tank, slipseat or team.
Additionally, he contends fleets should consider implementing ways to assist drivers interested in moving into other company positions be it via training or educational opportunities. In this way, drivers can see the way to becoming a driver-manager or a driver recruiter, dispatcher or sales rep etc.
Toward that end, fleets might even partner with one or more colleges or distance learning providers to offer degree programs or perhaps just some basic business courses that would benefit drivers seeking to move out from behind the steering wheel.
For example, working with online educator InCabUniversity, Mountain State University of Beckley, WV, offers a BS in Organizational Leadership with a concentration in Transportation Management that it touts as “a strong foundation for career advancement” in trucking. This accelerated online program allows completing the degree in as few as 18 months if “learning credits” earned in industry training programs are applied.
Swain reports elements of his driver-career program are being put to the real-world test by several client fleets. He says the bulk carrier is running a beta test driver-benchmarking program. “They're defining an improved recruiting program around it and will build a new orientation program to support the effort but they are in the early stages and not the best example for measured results.”
On the other hand, he relates that Nussbaum Trucking, a regional hauler based in Normal, IL, has been “progressively implementing parts of the concept over the past three years” and says their turnover rate has improved in that time from 90% to 35%.
“The idea of offering a career path stems from defining reasons and benefits for quality driver applicants to come to a fleet and then creating opportunities that will convince them to stay,” Swain sums up.
It does seem if you need drivers and even more to the point, want to keep the good ones you've got, putting them on a career path they can travel with you may pay off over the long haul — for everyone.
No Magic Bullet
“If you can get drivers to come in the door, with the pay, work-life balance and other benefits you're offering, then providing a career path is a great way to help retain them,” reasons Jeff Stoicheff, senior vp-human resources for Penske Logistics.
He says presenting the possibility of a career opportunity has been “part of our [Penske] culture since Roger Penske started this business in 1969.” Stoicheff notes he can point to a number of drivers who have progressed to leadership roles at Penske Logistics.
But there is no formal driver “career path” in place. “We don't have to write it down because it is just part of how we all work here,” says Stoicheff. “There's no magic bullet. Anyone can advance but it starts with doing the basics first.”
Stoicheff says it's important to keep advancement opportunities visible to all employees starting at the local level, which is where drivers are most likely to start assuming more responsibility.
He says one way a driver might progress in this manner is by completing Penske's driver-safety program and by maintaining a good safety record, take on the added responsibility of training other drivers on that program.
“We've also seen our drivers move into dispatching and our vp of safety was once a tractor-trailer driver,” Stoicheff points out.
“When we hire for driving or warehouse positions we look for a person who understands the importance of safety, service and skill,” he adds. “If he or she understands that, they come in the door as part of a meritocracy-and from then are only limited by their ability.”