For Pat Hightower, many carriers trying to fix the driver shortage are going down the wrong road.
“If you look at the way trucking companies incentivize their recruiting departments, very rarely is there a retention component,” says the president and CEO of The Hightower Agency, which specializes in driver recruitment.
“Trucking companies fool themselves with having what they refer to as ‘targeted budgets’ for recruiting. But who owns retention? It’s the marketing department. The people that they're putting in marketing positions are typically younger, because they feel they need to connect to the younger generation. They hire marketing people who are very qualified, very educated, that are 25 or 35, and are gung-ho to market what they have to the world and throwing dollars at Google and Facebook. They don’t understand that internal marketing to promote and develop long-term lasting relationships within their own organization is vital. Nobody’s really doing that kind of stuff.”
Hightower said he sees some carriers considering a four-day work week as a way to lure new drivers. “The problem with that,” he warns, “is that it will create even more of a driver shortage. The thinking is that some of this shortage may be taken up by autonomous trucks.”
However, while the technology may be speeding along, that’s only part of what has to take place for implementation, he said. There’s another, more allusive, component. “I call it the ‘cultural adoption of acceptance’ of autonomous fleet, and we are nowhere close to that.”
“You will need insurance companies that are willing to provide coverage to trucking companies for autonomous vehicles," Hightower added. "If you look at the majority of large carriers, they're self-insured. They have secondary insurance for major catastrophic, but for them to take on autonomous vehicles they would need riders and separate insurance policies. Where I do see an opportunity for autonomous drivers is on dedicated company-to-company, B2B-type transactions. If Anheuser-Busch needs to take a truckload of Budweiser from Denver to Colorado Springs, they can do that, but when you start getting into over the road, how will you manage it? Do you think Pilot is going to provide self-serve filling stations? Will an autonomous truck know if a strap [on a flatbed] is loose? There are too many unanswered questions. Do I think it could be answered in 20 years? Probably. But 10 years? No.”
What then is the key to recruitment and retention, especially for young drivers?
Money, lifestyle and respect, Hightower said. “The biggest thing that's going to draw youth into this industry is the dollar sign. We've seen pay for truck drivers increase, in some cases by as much as twenty-five percent in the last six months, and it's going to continue.”
“Lifestyle is improving,” Hightower explained. “For lack of a better term, you're living in a trailer. Your entertainment is limited to truck stops or shopping centers, but people are willing to sacrifice some of those things if the money is good.”
He agrees that being away from home is not a factor for some workers such as oil riggers, military contractors in war zones, fishers in remote locations and others who are willing to put up with time away and tough living conditions if the money is good enough. “But when you're only making $800 a week, do you really want to live in the back of a cab and eat in a truck stop probably two meals a day all week?” That’s getting better, he noted. “Cabs are becoming more like luxurious ‘tiny houses’ with Direct TV, XM radio, free internet, and all around better accommodations. Truck stops are actually getting nicer as well.”
The other component is respect. “You hear it from truck drivers all the time: ‘I'm treated like a dog. My company doesn't respect me; my customers don't respect me.’ That is starting to change a little bit, and some of [the problem] comes from the driver having self-respect, too. If you're wearing cut off shorts and a tankless t-shirt with coffee stains from three days ago, how can you expect a customer or your employer to respect you when you don't respect yourself.”
“I think the future is in the quality of the trucking job," Hightower concluded. "You’re going to be paid well, the quality of life is improving, the quality of the work atmosphere is improving, and the economy is growing.”