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Fleets challenge the driver turnover status quo

Oct. 21, 2020
The financial burden of driver turnover is substantial, plus high turnover rates can be damaging to a fleet's reputation. To prevent driver turnover, it’s important for fleets to understand the root causes of it and proactively engage their drivers.

It’s no secret that trucking has a driver retention problem. Over the last decade, average driver turnover for large truckload fleets across the country has lingered around the 90% range, while the average driver turnover rate for small truckload fleets has been in the 80% range.

“To be honest, these number haven’t changed much over the last 10 to 15 years,” explained Hayden Cardiff, founder and CEO of driver management platform Idelic, during the opening education session of ATA’s virtual Management Conference & Exhibition (MCE) on Oct. 20.

“One of the things that has come up when I talked to fleets is this same type of mentality and thought process that this is status quo, this is how it is, and this is what we have to deal with being a trucking fleet in today’s age,” he continued. “But one of the things that we want to challenge is that this status quo does not have to be consistent moving forward, and there are things we can do to challenge that.”

Gregg Troian, president of PGT Trucking Inc., a flatbed carrier that employs both company drivers and owner-operators, explained the company has established a number it uses to calculate the cost of turnover. Right now, PGT is at about $9,500 per driver, he said.

“When we use that figure to discuss the impact of the turnover internally and externally, it helps people put things into perspective,” Troian explained, adding that number does not include the impact driver turnover has on equipment. “One tractor that may have 10 to 15 drivers in it over a year or two years impacts the maintenance of that truck and how many times we have to prep it to put a new driver in it.”

Ronnie Holland, who is the director of safety at TCW Inc., a third-generation carrier that has about 600 employees, 500 of whom are company drivers and owner-operators, said consistently high turnover rates affect trucking’s image when trying to attract new talent to the industry.

“Typically speaking, when a driver is leaving a company, they are not talking about the good things about that company,” Holland noted. “They are spreading a message that’s very negative, and why would somebody want to go and work for an industry that has so much negativity in it?”

What makes drivers leave?

To prevent driver turnover, it’s important to understand the root causes of it. A telltale sign that the industry has work to do is that roughly 25% of drivers fall in the involuntary turnover range, meaning they are likely terminated by their employer, while 75% of driver turnover falls in the voluntary range.

One reason voluntary turnover rates are so high is that drivers want to feel respected, Cardiff said. If they have bad engagements with their manager, dispatcher or with a fleet’s safety department, they might not feel respected. He explained that drivers also leave a trucking company if they don’t feel like they are listened to or promises don’t match up to what they were sold during their recruiting process.

Holland, who explained that home time is a major issue for many drivers, said TCW is fortunate to have a turnover rate that is much less than the industry average. One reason is that TCW drivers are home every day. Holland also said that TCW provides the best equipment for its drivers. Physical health issues, like sleep apnea, have also motivated drivers to retire from the industry, he added.

Troian suggested that fleets address turnover in the initial hiring process to retain more drivers.

“If you strive to hire right in the first place, it will have a definite impact on turnover,” he said. “We spend a lot of time making sure that we are coming across honestly. We don’t sugarcoat this job. We operate over-the-road flatbed equipment that our drivers have to climb onto in summer and winter extremes, and that is an added challenge for us. But we spend extra time in the hiring process making sure that drivers are aware of what they are getting into.”  

Troian also noted that ongoing education and making sure fleet managers are available for their drivers through the challenges is key. Once drivers are onboarded, other main factors of driver retention include pay, the quality of equipment, health, compassion, and ongoing education, he said.

Driver engagement solutions

When it comes to communicating with drivers, Cardiff suggested that fleet managers make sure they are not only communicating regularly but that they are focusing on quality communication.

“You want to make sure that as you’re talking to those drivers, you are understanding with empathy,” Cardiff advised. “If that communication is poor, then it is not going to be effective.”

At PGT, Troian said that all new employees are required to spend a day with a driver in an effort to train non-driver staff on how to understand what drivers go through.

“Your entire fleet of non-drivers has to be sensitized to what a driver goes through, so we are all supporting these people on the road,” he explained. “You have to have that same empathy and understanding as a fleet manager does, otherwise, if anyone talks down to or disrespects anyone, all our efforts are gone.”

Holland added that driver engagement starts with having an open-door environment where drivers come in and feel comfortable talking to their manager about any issue; however, that has been challenged in 2020 by COVID-19.

Holland also noted that TCW started a random courtesy inspection to check in on drivers while they are on the road.

“It’s not just to get out and make sure the equipment is in good shape, but to make sure the driver knows we care by getting out of our own environment and going to their environment,” he said. “We encourage our managers to get out there and do random courtesy inspections every week. We have really pushed that program.”

Another key to driver engagement at TCW is the company’s master coach program, which the carrier developed in 2014 to help fleet managers communicate with drivers and staff. Holland explained that a master coach is an experienced driver who has a passion to help others improve. TCW also has a driver council meeting that meets twice a year, in which TCW’s CEO will visit every terminal and meet with drivers.

Holland also advised that when communicating with drivers, fleet owners and managers should focus on positive reinforcement.  

“If every time they see us, we are talking about what they can do better, they are going to go elsewhere,” he said. “We really try to focus on positive behaviors, and it is very likely those behaviors will be repeated. Don’t just limit conversations to their performance. Get to know their families and their hobbies, and get to know them.”

When it comes to some of the different tools fleet managers can use to increase engagement, one is taking good notes, Cardiff explained. Taking notes on specifics outside of work, like drivers’ families, pets, and favorite sports, for instance, allows managers to have a more in-depth conversation with their drivers.

Cardiff also suggested that fleet managers implement an automated and consistent process of when they need to engage with drivers—whether it’s for performance improvement or some sort of safety training. He urged fleets to set up automated touch points and regular reminders to check in with their drivers.

Also, within those automated touch points, Cardiff emphasized the importance of implementing a system that allows managers to make sure that they’re conveying the right message, at the right time, and in a highly informed manner.

“Driver managers are typically younger in their career, and those managers are trying to coach more seasoned drivers. If those managers aren’t armed with highly engaging messages or understanding what they need to say and what questions they need to ask, they are going to struggle. They are going to have a hard time gaining the respect and ear of those drivers,” Cardiff stressed. “The more you can have that templated out in automated touch points, the more effective it will make that process.”

Designed to help employees succeed within the company, the TCW master coach program currently has 28 active master coaches who help the fleet bridge the gap between communication and driver engagement.

“If there is any disconnect, they will help get that back together,” Holland said. “We invest a lot in our master coaches here because they connect us with the drivers when that disconnect happens. It’s not easy to find an experienced driver who has a passion to help others and who has the communications skills. It takes a unique driver to be a master coach.”

Safety culture and driver turnover

A strong fleet safety culture is key when it comes to obtaining driver buy-in and reducing voluntary turnover.

“Drivers understand that they are putting themselves in harm’s way oftentimes,” Cardiff explained. “They are driving a very technically challenging vehicle down the road where the passenger cars around them are not the most friendly and helpful when it comes to safe driving. They are incredible professionals, so when you, as an organization, can show that you are there to help support them when they buy into that safety culture, they buy into you and your brand as well.”  

Holland also noted that accidents can happen even within the strongest safety cultures. The key, he said, is staying involved and making sure drivers know that “how they operate is our culture.”

Ultimately, implementing a fleet-wide safety culture comes down to taking action.

“I’ve seen drivers who have had an accident and they weren’t even at fault and they quit,” said PGT’s Troian. “It scares them, it concerns them, and they decide this isn’t for them. Keeping them safe and making sure that we do everything we can to help them avoid bad habits and avoid getting in those situations is our job.” 

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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