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Determining true driver turnover is not as easy as it seems

April 10, 2020
A fleet’s ability to retain its drivers is generally seen as a measure of good corporate culture, and a positive outcome of the company’s efforts to make life better for drivers.

A fleet’s ability to retain its drivers is generally seen as a measure of good corporate culture, and a positive outcome of the company’s efforts to make life better for drivers. It’s why we spend a great deal of time determining “true” driver turnover rates for those fleets competing in the Best Fleets to Drive For program.

In theory, it’s pretty simple to calculate turnover. The standard way is to look at how many drivers a fleet has over a particular period and how many left during that same period. Then figure out a ratio or percentage reflecting those numbers. There’s a standard formula used in the HR world that combines those numbers to create a retention score, but we learned long ago that basic formulas don’t work for us because they don't control for the various influencing factors that we need to consider.

We can’t look at the fleet’s “turnover” rate and compare apples to apples. We have to dig deeper. One fleet’s 40 percent driver turnover isn’t the same as another’s.

Here’s why it’s complicated, and what we consider when figuring out real turnover:

What really is turnover?

For starters, what really defines driver turnover? If older drivers retire, does that count? What about drivers who get injured and never return from medical leave or have other medical disqualifications? What about people who are fired for performance reasons? All of those are exits but not necessarily indicative of a bad culture. 

In some industries, those specific situations are rare so you don’t need to worry about it. In trucking, though, they’re much more common. Truck drivers tend to be older, which increases the rate at which health complications occur, so retirements and medical issues can be significant contributors to turnover. In fact, one Best Fleet finalist saw retirements representing 81% of its exits. All those exits need to be considered – it’s not turnover due to company culture.

Even if you just look at people who quit and go to another job elsewhere, it can still be complicated. When asked why drivers are quitting, the most common reason we hear is that they’re going to a local job. That seems like someone who’s essentially leaving the industry (or at least leaving the regional/OTR segments of it) but it’s also a convenient answer that likely isn’t true all the time. If a driver gives that as a reason, then the company is less likely to challenge it or try and convince them to stay. You can’t always trust that it's true.

Now, if drivers are quitting and going to similar fleets, that to us is the true turnover number. Or is it?  

They left the company, and that could indicate culture issues at the company. Yet, it’s still not black and white. It’s pretty common for at least some of those drivers to return to the company within a year – across all Best Fleets finalists this year, more than 28 percent of voluntary exits returned within the year. The grass was not greener on the other side, and they learned first-hand they had it pretty good at the company they had left.

Going further, let’s factor in “returning” employees and just count the “net voluntary exits.” That should give us a reliable number that we can use to determine turnover, right? We’re getting closer, but it’s still insufficient. Looking purely at the percentage of drivers who voluntarily leave and don’t return, doesn’t paint a clear picture of what’s happening.

Most notably, those numbers get skewed by the presence of a new entrant program. Fleets that have programs to bring new drivers into the industry generally have much higher turnover than fleets that don’t. They’re doing the tough work of weeding out the many people who think they want to be truck drivers but discover the hard way that they really don’t. Their turnover is higher, but it doesn’t really indicate a bad culture. Similarly, fleets where drivers stay out for extended periods often have more turnover just because of the nature of the work. Not necessarily a bad culture either.

What does that turnover indicate?

When the right people get hired they might be perfectly happy and you have a driver for life. But, it’s important to recognize that if someone quits, the problem may be upfront in the hiring process. It’s not always the fault of company culture. If the company hires the wrong person for the job, and they quit because they’re unhappy, it could indicate problems in recruiting that need to be fixed.

But wait, there’s more!

Over the past couple of years there’s been a lot of merger and acquisition activity in the industry. Anytime a company gets a new owner, there are going to be employees unhappy about it and then they quit. In several cases, fleets have acquired other fleets and discovered that drivers at the acquired company don’t really want to follow the rules at the new company. There are, unfortunately, drivers on the road who don’t want to change their behaviors, and they often end up working at companies that might not be as stringent in their hiring practices.

When those companies get acquired and the new owner insists people run safe and compliant, those drivers leave. That’s not always what happens in an acquisition of course, but in the Best Fleets program we’ve certainly seen examples of excellent companies acquiring smaller ones and having the drivers quit or get fired for safety reasons. That “turnover” is not a case of a bad culture, in fact it’s more the opposite – the company has a great culture that doesn’t have room for poor performers and bad attitudes.

The economic squeeze

Last year, with the economy squeezing people significantly, we also saw fleets shrinking their driver counts. Sometimes they lost a major customer, sometimes they saw reduced business across multiple customers, but either way they didn’t have work for everyone, and some drivers got cut. That’s also not indicative of a bad culture, but it can look like turnover.

The true picture of turnover

To get a real picture of driver turnover in a fleet, and what that turnover is saying about the culture, the Best Fleets to Drive For program has to factor in all those elements and create a scoring process that controls for them. I can’t divulge the specifics of the formula that we use for the process, but it does get longer and more complicated every year.

For fleets trying to make sense of their own driver turnover, it’s not easy. Your numbers are specific to you, as are the reasons for your turnover. By understanding the big picture, and not just the “number” you’ll have a better idea of how you’re truly doing in retaining your drivers year-over-year.

About the Author

Mark Murrell

Mark Murrell is president of CarriersEdge, a leading provider of online driver training for the trucking industry, and co-creator of Best Fleets to Drive For, an annual evaluation of the best workplaces in the North American trucking industry. 

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