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Driven to drive

Jan. 8, 2015
What drivers want ­and how fleets can make sure they get it

Who wants to be a truck driver? Who wants their sons and daughters to be truck drivers? At last count, the virtual show of hands came up about 30,000 short in 2014, with worse expected to come in the years ahead. If there is a way to make this apparently undesirable but essential job more appealing, fleet owners want to know—and they want to know now. So, what will it take?

Today, advanced technologies and old-fashioned common sense are converging to create new opportunities and solutions for fleets and their drivers to forge more stable and productive working environments. Sure, it won’t be quick or even easy, but things can get better.

Even among those already working as commercial drivers, there is widespread restlessness and discontent, especially in the truckload sector, which manifests itself in frequent job changes. Kent Ferguson, director of transportation solutions at HireRight, a provider of online background checks, drug and alcohol screening, and employment verification services, conducts a survey every year that helps to suggest why.

The HireRight Transportation Spotlight 2014 report, based on data from the company’s Annual Employment Screening Benchmarking Survey, gathered input from 3,038 human resources, talent management, recruiting, security, safety, and executive-level professionals from more than 2,200 organizations. When asked why drivers were leaving, 51% of respondents reported that it was for more pay. Forty-one percent said it was to have more time at home, while 27% said drivers wanted better benefits. Retirement, more flexible workhours, and leaving the industry also made the list.

That isn’t the whole story, though. As a worker, you want people to respect you and to value your contribution, adds Ferguson. That doesn’t always happen for drivers.

Tim Hindes, CEO of Stay Metrics, a company that conducts driver satisfaction surveys, quizzes and even exit interviews for carriers, and also creates and manages a unique recognition rewards program, has uncovered similar insights from asking drivers about what they like and don’t like about the companies for which they work. “Two common complaints are that they are not respected and not listened to,” he says.

“Our driver satisfaction survey allows drivers to express their satisfaction with virtually everything that touches them [because of their job],” Hindes notes. “It began with 96 questions then we cut 10 questions and added 20 others. About 20 to 25 questions are highly predictive of turnover.

“We are all about the driver,” he adds. “We are trying to elevate the role and image of the driver back to what it once was.” To that end, Stay Metrics helps fleets identify their individual strengths and their “hot spots,” or the things that cause problems and discontent among their own drivers, so that they can take appropriate action.

So, can you guess what is the number-one gripe among surveyed drivers?  Broken recruiting promises. It turns out that drivers often don’t ask the most important questions when they are talking with recruiters, such as questions about pay, home time, equipment, and so on, Stay Metrics reports. What is worse, recruiters often don’t think to address those unasked questions. The net effect on the newly hired driver can be a feeling of being misled—not exactly a promising start to a working relationship. The good news is that it can be fixed.

Hindes recommends that fleets make sure their recruiters are absolutely current on pay policies, have a checklist of topics to cover with job applicants, and get third-party help when it comes to gathering feedback from drivers. Fleets that try to run their own driver surveys often get poor response rates and poor information. Plus, they have no basis for comparison with other fleets, he notes. The goal is to identify what works and what doesn’t for drivers to eliminate that post-hire shock and replace it with something far more positive for all concerned.

Some fleets are also using pre-employment screening tests to try to identify candidates who will like what a company has to offer and be willing and inclined to support company values and goals in their own day-to-day work. Still others are deploying “big data” to speed the selection process and improve results.

“We are seeing more and more companies using pre-employment screening tests to help with retention,” says Ferguson. “The hope is that these tools will help identify applicants whose values, motivation and risk tolerance align well with their potential employer. They are looking at the scores of their top drivers to see how applicants’ scores compare. This screening step can’t be a long process, though. If it is, drivers are so much in demand that they will just say it isn’t worth it, or it is too hard to do and move on.”

Avatar Management Services Inc., a HireRight partner, is one company that offers fleets a pre-employment assessment tool designed to “uncover characteristics linked directly to aggression, patience, attention to detail, conscientiousness and risk aversion…[which can help you] hire the best and safest candidates.”

In a guest blog on the HireRight website, Avatar CEO Mark G. Gardner makes the case for what he calls “validated assessment protocols.”

“Comparing one applicant to another is a challenge,” Gardner writes. “However, let’s take a look at what makes a person a safe driver. Part of it may be his or her experience...but if we look at various studies, characteristics such as values, motivations and personality seem key to how they will perform. So…is it better to hire for experience and skills and then try to influence the person or is it better to screen out the risk takers in the first place? A case can be made for both philosophies, but the evidence shows that [good] selection and hiring is by far the most effective and least costly strategy for achieving better organizational results.”

For many years, Dr. Richard Scheig, founder and CEO of Scheig Associates, has offered pre-employment assessment tools for long- and short-haul drivers based upon the attributes of recognized top-performing drivers. “We know that these assessments can identify job candidates most likely to be successful in driver training,” he notes. “Even people who actively recruit from populations they don’t usually draw from still have to answer that core question: ‘Does this person have the entry-level requirements to be successful?”

Scheig makes a good point. Sidestep that basic question and you are choosing (rightly or wrongly) to head down the long road of trial and error hoping that each entry-level hire can be trained to be a good driver.

If a greater degree of certainty is possible before moving ahead, that can be a real cost- and time-saving plus. It is perhaps no wonder, therefore, that some companies are also looking to “big data” for solutions to sorting the top candidates from the rest.

“For more and more companies, the hiring boss is an algorithm,” notes writer Joseph Walker in a Wall Street Journal article (“Meet the New Boss: Big Data.” September 20, 2012). “The factors they consider are different than what applicants have come to expect. Jobs that were once filled on the basis of work history and interviews are left to personality tests and data analysis, as employers aim for more than just a hunch that a person will do the job well. Under pressure to cut costs and boost productivity, employers are trying to predict specific outcomes, such as whether a prospective hire will quit too soon, file disability claims or steal.”

Improved retention results are already assuring that this big data approach is here to stay. Concerns about privacy violation and unfair employment discrimination when using big data to screen employee candidates are also here to stay, however, something fleet employers need to keep in mind.

Hurry up the hiring

Another of the compelling draws of big data and other technology solutions to automate screening and hiring is that they can accelerate the hiring process so that good job candidates don’t just go away due to process delay. “One of the top challenges for fleets today is reducing time to hire,” notes Ferguson. “We provide access to quick [screening] information almost instantaneously. A recruiter could even get the information while on the phone with a driver.”

This allows fleets to get a prospective driver into orientation class while finishing up the longer screening checks such as physicals, criminal background checks, and drug and alcohol screening, he says. The timing matters—a lot.

According to Ferguson, more companies are also using software to manage and automate the entire hiring process, and HireRight integrates with many of them. Companies such as TenStreet, EBE Technologies, McLeod Software (with its HirePower solution), RapidHire, J.J. Keller & Asso­ciates, and others help fleets reduce repetitive paperwork, streamline the application process for drivers, and help to make sure that the company is in compliance with all of the many federal- and state-level requirements that have become so large a part of bringing on a new employee.

Keeping good drivers

Hiring well-qualified candidates is only the start, however. Although fleets are coming to understand more about what drivers really want and getting better at screening drivers for fit within their companies, that doesn’t automatically result in teams of happy professional drivers who are all safe, productive and loyal.

“Drivers vote with their feet,” observes Chris Hines, executive vice president for Zonar Systems. “They leave when practices are wrong…In my view, you have to look at turnover and tools by [trucking] segment. It is way too big and nuanced to paint with one brush.”

Today, fleets certainly are not using just one brush to try to improve retention. The HireRight Transportation Spotlight 2014 report identifies several things companies are doing to reduce turnover. Some 39% of those responding to the survey reported increasing pay, 38% said they were upgrading equipment, and 36% noted that they were offering various incentives based upon performance. Another 22% reported enhancing benefits, 18% said they offered some flexible work schedules, and 12% reported adding a driver liaison function to help make sure drivers’ voices are heard.

When it comes to creating incentive programs, telematics and other onboard systems have become valuable new tools for fleets that understand the importance of fairness and transparency when it comes to offering rewards for specific behaviors.

“Well-run fleets are using the advanced data they are getting from the truck to build performance-based pay [programs],” observes Hines, citing examples such as shifting patterns, use of cruise control, idle time, and over-speeding that are within the driver’s control and impact miles per gallon.

“When you think [about it], for years a driver came to work, got a signing bonus based on experience, and immediately signed in for ‘X’ cents per mile, or ‘Y’ per hour, with the fleet having no real idea how he drives the truck in real situations,” Hines adds. “The creation of a competitive, ‘game­ified’ environment measured with actual criteria is the next advancement for fleets.”

James Brandon Wooden, curriculum coordinator for Transportation Training at Crowder College, takes the idea of using data from the vehicle to help create performance-based bonus programs one step further. “If we are looking for a way to peek in and see what a driver is doing, we can, thanks to telematics,” he says. “Technologies like DriveCam from Lytx, which we use in our driver training course, give us an even more direct view.

“We can also look at data from the truck and see things that are reflective of the driver’s attitudes,” Wooden adds. “Is he/she always running late? Making logbook mistakes? Speeding? Violating hours of service? If we read those numbers a little less literally, we can see indicators of attitude that could suggest the driver does not share company values or, for whatever reason, feel like they have a stake in the game.”

Skin in the game

Say the entire fleet is using too much fuel, he illustrates. You could just tell drivers that they are not meeting mpg expectations and be done with it, or you could talk to them about the behaviors that contribute to fuel efficiency, show them the numbers, and help them understand why the results matter so much to the company. In other words, make them take some ownership of those numbers. Then you can give them incentives for hitting the numbers, a stake in the outcome, and let them share in the success.

“Drivers need to have a sense of ownership,” Wooden observes. “They need to know that everything they do affects the bottom line. They also have to get something out of that; they need a way to win.”

Adam Kahn, senior director of marketing for SmartDrive, sees onboard video as having a special role to play in the creation of successful performance-based incentive programs. “Where there is confusion, there is mistrust. Video is consistent and fair,” he notes. “There is no ‘he said/she said.’  There is no mistake about operating expectations and performance. This helps to build stronger, more collaborative relationships [between drivers and managers].”

When it comes to offering rewards, Kahn adds, drivers need to be able to see exactly why they did (or did not) receive an award for a particular period and what they can do to improve for the next time. With video, it is easier to see what good driving looks like. It is clear and consistent, which makes it a great collaborative tool, he notes.

There is at least one very popular incentive program that may actually be doing more harm than good—signing bonuses. “The sad truth is that there is a high churn rate for drivers,” says Zonar’s Hines. “Driver signing bonuses are a necessary evil. Once out there, they are hard to pull back.”
“Signing bonuses actually perpetuate the turnover problem,” says Ferguson.

When you think about it, that makes perfect sense. Unless a fleet can offer something that makes staying put more attractive than leaving, the best money for drivers comes from joining a fleet and staying until they earn the promised signing bonus, then leaving for another bonus and repeating the process.

Remuneration expert Beth Carroll, managing partner of the Prosperio Group, a sales compensation consulting firm serving transportation and supply chain companies, has plenty to say about driver pay.  For starters, pay-for-performance programs are here to stay and should be, she notes.

Pay-per-mile and pay based on a percentage of shipment revenue, on the other hand, have to go.

Generally, Carroll recommends that fleets take a “target total cash and total rewards” approach to driver pay, blending some sort of guaranteed base pay rate with additional income opportunities based upon performance. It is more attractive to drivers to be told that they can expect to make a total of $50,000 on average with up to an additional $10,000 than it is to be told you pay 48¢ per mile, she explains. “It is basic human psychology. I am not sure the industry can survive without some kind of base pay guarantee [for drivers].”

No incentive plan will be successful, Carroll cautions, if certain basic human needs concerning work are not met first. The basic needs of autonomy, mastery and purpose form the foundation upon which you can add an incentive program. Without those, drivers will continue to move from fleet to fleet, looking for the best signing bonuses.

About the Author

Wendy Leavitt

Wendy Leavitt joined Fleet Owner in 1998 after serving as editor-in-chief of Trucking Technology magazine for four years.

She began her career in the trucking industry at Kenworth Truck Company in Kirkland, WA where she spent 16 years—the first five years as safety and compliance manager in the engineering department and more than a decade as the company’s manager of advertising and public relations. She has also worked as a book editor, guided authors through the self-publishing process and operated her own marketing and public relations business.

Wendy has a Masters Degree in English and Art History from Western Washington University, where, as a graduate student, she also taught writing.  

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