Illustration: Derek Bacon
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Drivers: Finding new faces

Dec. 7, 2016

Filling empty seats is a numbers game, and if the driver shortage and turnover reports are any indication (and they are), trucking isn’t playing the game very well. But some fleets are beating the odds, using data to guide their recruiting and retention strategies. According to trucking company personnel managers, service providers, and industry analysts, the key to success heading to 2020 and beyond is to embrace the shifting demographics. But there’s a potential contradiction: How does a fleet rigorously track and act upon critical driver analytics and yet not treat the man or woman behind the wheel as just another data point?

Winning at this numbers game requires understanding the playing field on which all carriers compete for drivers.

The real threat to the future is the aging driver population—and the inability, so far, of trucking to get younger drivers behind the wheel.

The American Transportation Research Institute’s analysis of 20 years of data confirms that a demographic shift is underway: The share of younger employees in the trucking workforce is now decreasing, with the industry more reliant than ever upon a specific generation—the core of which is within the 45-54-year-old age group.

Indeed, more than 29% of trucking employees in 2013 fell into that core age group, which is a higher figure than other employer categories used in the research, including construction, professional/business services, and all industry. Likewise, a lower percentage (15.6%) of 25-34-year-olds were employed within trucking compared with the other categories.

And, even though the research illustrated precisely this shift in the age of the driver workforce, not much has changed in the two years since it was published, ATRI president and COO Rebecca Brewster tells Fleet Owner.

Some of this inability to seat younger drivers is systemic, such as federal regulations that don’t permit anyone under age 21 to drive in interstate commerce, while some insurance requirements prohibit drivers less than 25 years of age, she notes.Regardless, “if we don’t rethink and restructure our workplace, we are not going to be able to fill seats in the future,” Brewster says.

Step one is to make sure good, experienced drivers don’t leave. Second, obviously, is to make the job of truck driver appeal to younger people. But if managing both ends of the career arc—with sometimes contradictory expectations and needs—was easy, trucking wouldn’t have this shortage.
Brewster points to the industry’s adoption of technology as a key—new operational tools with which the younger generation, or millennials, will be comfortable—in fact, they’ll expect it. Brewster also points to the obvious need to increase diversity, particularly with regard to women.

“Those of us in the industry need to look for opportunities to mentor folks who don’t necessarily look just like us,” she says. And while she credits the industry with making progress in the last 25 years, trucking still lags when it comes to opportunities for those outside of the traditional labor pool.

“The industry needs to be proactive—and we need to do this more rapidly because of our workforce issues,” Brewster says. “We are really going to have to adapt and change quickly to meet the needs of the older individuals who have been with us for a long time and who have shown loyalty as well as those who are just entering this industry and considering it as a career path.”

Millennials and diversity

The good news is that millennials are more diverse than previous generations, so attracting younger people will also help improve diversity in the driver population, explains Jane Jazrawy, co-founder of CarriersEdge, which provides online training tools for fleets.

CarriersEdge also manages the Truckload Carriers Assn.’s  Best Fleets to Drive For program, which is designed to identify workplace environments that are exceptional because they feature attractive compensation and an enviable company culture. And Jazrawy is  now scoring fleets on diversity.

“From a driver shortage point of view, there is under-representation of minorities in trucking, and there has been very little attention paid to this fact,” Jazrawy says. “The focus has been on women and veterans because there are larger numbers of people in both of those groups, but it is an oversight not to look harder at what trucking companies could be doing to attract and retain ethnic minorities.”

And then there’s the demographic reality: By 2030, non-white Americans will be in the majority, she notes. “Trucking needs to come to terms with this now,” Jazrawy adds. “Unless trucking does, it’s going to be left behind because other industries are.”

Essentially, based on her conversations with fleets, most feel that following Employee Equal Opportunity Commission requirements is sufficient. And, as any trip to the truck stop will confirm, minority drivers already seem to be well represented. But that’s not the inclusiveness goal Jazrawy refers to.

She points to the challenges “out on the road” that women driving alone, or a Muslim, face: opportunities for harassment, or even violence. “You’re not going to attract people who feel threatened; they have other choices. And if you don’t have a plan, it isn’t getting done.”

And often, a trucking company will assume it doesn’t have a problem because drivers don’t report any—a mistake. A company needs to be proactive, beyond just an open-door policy. A company needs to have a straightforward means for reporting such incidents and a definite policy to handle them. “The fleets that do better in the Best Fleet program have already thought of that and are addressing it, whether or not they’re required to by law,” she says.

Jazrawy points to the sweeping change that has come in the past decade in terms of putting women behind the wheel—and, increasingly, in management—and suggests a similar path for “new, younger, different-looking drivers.”

“People and companies are going to be resistant because it is difficult,” she says. “When your executives are entirely white men, how are you going to attract women? You bring in people to help. As there are more women in the industry, it’s easier. For minorities, it’s the same thing: Take advantage. If you have a Latino or an African-American driver, go and ask what you want to know. It’s a process. If you don’t talk about it, nothing changes.”

Creating a company culture that embraces diversity is one thing, but putting a more inclusive policy to work can be another. When Lana Batts led TCA in the 1990s, she helped fleets begin to understand the true cost of driver turnover by looking beyond just the expense of recruiting and training. Now, as co-president of employment history provider DriverIQ, she’s using her trucking experience to help fleets better understand the backgrounds of potential employees.

Batts prefaces her comments regarding recruiting the next generation of drivers with an essential point: “It’s not a very attractive job when you can get a little more education and spend time with family,” she says. “So we’ve either got to figure out how to pay these guys and gals a lot more money, or we’ve got to change the nature of the job—and I don’t see us figuring out a way to change the nature of the job for a long, long time (autonomous trucks notwithstanding). And, because of the competitive nature of the industry, I don’t see us paying a lot more. Therefore, you have turnover.”

A legal tightrope

But hiring can get tricky when common-sense precautions conflict with government employee protections. She points to EEOC guidelines (“legally imposed ignorance”) that state a criminal conviction cannot be used to disqualify an applicant unless there’s a potential connection to the work he or she would be doing, and it took place within a certain period prior to the application.
Demographics, in this case, work against millennials. DriverIQ has found that, as a group, people in that generation have “a lot of drug convictions.”

“That’s an automatic disqualification. You could have gone through rehab—it doesn’t matter to most motor carriers unless that conviction is 10 years or older,” Batts says. “It’s marijuana, so who cares? If you’re a motor carrier, you do. It’s very much an age thing.”

Similarly, carriers should understand that criminal records can be a pothole on the road to inclusivity. Batts points to a 2016 White House report that shows blacks and Hispanics, while representing approximately 30% of the U.S. population, comprise over 50% of the incarcerated population. Using estimates based on historical trends, nearly a third of black males and one in six Hispanic males born in 2001 are expected to serve time in prison in their lifetimes.

Complicating matters, plaintiffs’ attorneys are not bound by EEOC rules. So even a decades-old offense, or arrest record without a conviction—things that a trucking company cannot legally use in a hiring decision—is fair game in a traffic-accident trial.

“Motor carriers are caught between what EEOC says and what attorneys can come up with just by searching Google,” Batts says. “Yet the industry gets a black eye because they hired this guy.”
Ultimately, successful carriers will have well-trained recruiters.

“Technology does a lot, but a lot more is really from that recruiter on the phone with the applicant listening to what that applicant is saying,” Batts concludes. “We’ll see motor carriers that have run 100 drivers through DriverIQ, and 10 of those will have convictions that are relevant, but another carrier will only have 3. What’s the difference? It’s the same driver pool, but one group has really trained its recruiters to listen. Those are things that technology is never going to get around.”

But enough discussion of why trucking desperately needs a new generation of drivers—and how tough it can be to attract young people: It can be done, as Melton Truck Line’s employee services manager Marilyn Surber explains.

Misunderstood millennials

As for doing the job, younger drivers—contrary to common assumptions—are willing to work hard, but they need to be motivated in different ways than the previous generations. Similarly, millennials have different styles of learning and communicating that need to be recognized.

“They don’t want to do something just because the dispatcher told them to do it. They want to understand the why and be part of something bigger,” she says.

Surber emphasizes the importance of having an online application that is optimized for mobile devices. “A millennial is not going to spend 20 minutes trying to find you, and they’re not going to spend another 20 minutes filling out your online application,” she  explains. “It needs to be responsive and intuitive. This generation has grown up using the Internet. They’re very comfortable with technology, and that’s how they’re applying for jobs—with smartphones and tablets.”

Likewise, a social media presence is essential—and that includes carefully maintaining the fleet’s image on numerous platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Melton has a full-time coordinator responsible for controlling the company’s message.

“[Applicants] can see what Melton’s culture is about, and what other drivers have to say,” she says. “If you are trying to recruit millennials  and they can’t find you, you’re at a disadvantage.”

Social media, it turns out, is also a great way for a company to communicate with its drivers. Indeed, Facebook events or YouTube messages from the company president can be much more effective than a Qualcomm blast. And the communication goes both ways.

“Social media has opened up another outlet for us to be proactive around the clock,” Surber says. “We find out about things that we can get in front of—things we would’ve never known without that avenue.”

Surber, herself a millennial, points out that a lot of Melton’s older drivers are connecting to the company through social media as well, and the company encourages veteran drivers to stay connected to their families at home.

And younger drivers are indeed interested in having the latest technology. Along with fleet management systems and telematics, mobile devices are computers in the cab, and millennials rely on apps for work and recreation.

“For this generation, this is a cool job. You are utilizing a lot of technology, and you’re making a huge difference,” Surber says. “It’s about training the people who are going to be managing drivers: How can I get the best out of them if they’re 25? Or even 55? A  young driver manager needs to understand how to get the best out of an older driver too.”

Indeed, good management is about individuals, not clever pop-sociology nicknames for entire generations.

The ‘on-demand’ generation

even if they’re currently underrepresented in the trucking workforce, the number of millennials will grow significantly, and with that will come “a significant shift in values,” explains Max Farrell, co-founder of WorkHound, a mobile-based driver feedback and retention tool for fleets.

An entrepreneur with a background in human resources, Farrell built WorkHound around connectivity because, as a millennial himself, he knows that simply asking “how’s your day been?” will result in a couple of clicks that connect the driver with the company and, at the same time, provide real-time, actionable data about what works and what doesn’t for the fleet’s drivers.

“Our teenage and early-adult years have been formed based on connectivity and social networks, and needing this feedback. If I want to get in touch with somebody, I have eight different ways to do it,” Farrell says. “The communications mechanisms in trucking are tough. When there are wait times to get to a dispatcher with an issue, it’s much, much more annoying for millennials. We are the on-demand generation. Everything comes to the millennials. It’s all about how to make things easier, and communication is a key part of that.”

Trucking’s immediate problem, he suggests—confirming the conventional wisdom—is that it’s a “second choice” because few companies hire drivers in their early 20s. And those that do are typically mega-carriers where new employees are treated like a number—and millennials don’t like that at all.

Instead, millennials want mentoring and coaching, and they want to develop skills and expertise for the future. And while they also want work/life balance, they do appreciate self-management and personal productivity—real pluses for trucking.

Trucking companies also need to understand that millennials aren’t looking for a career or a company with lifelong expectations. In fact, 18 to 36 months is about the average amount of time millennials commit to a job, Farrell notes.

“The idea of permanent employment is dead,” he says, but if a young driver moves on after three years, that’s still a valuable contribution—yet, again, this approach does call for “a significant mind-shift.”

He makes the case that, rather than trying to shoehorn younger drivers into traditional expectations, trucking should embrace the difference. Rather than pitching truck driving as a career, a fleet might tailor a different approach for millennials.

About the Author

Kevin Jones 1 | Editor

Kevin Jones has an odd fascination with the supply chain. As editor of American Trucker, he focuses on the critical role owner-ops and small fleets play in the economy, locally and globally. And he likes big trucks.

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