Becoming one of the best fleets to drive for is a lofty goal for any trucking company, but thanks to the emergence of the Best Fleets to Drive For competition, there’s now a roadmap that can be followed to get there.
The Best Fleets to Drive For contest has been run by the Truckload Carriers Association and administered by Canadian online training firm CarriersEdge for four years now. Each year, CarriersEdge president Mark Murrell hits the road for a cross-Canada speaking tour during which he shares the best practices (and some of the worst) employed by carriers that were nominated through the program. The seminar series is hosted by Marsh Canada and sponsored by Kee Human Resources and Truck News. This year, it visited 10 Canadian cities and was attended by hundreds of fleet managers, company owners and recruiters.
To participate in the competition, a carrier must be nominated by one of its drivers. From there, Murrell and his team conduct an exhaustive evaluation of the nominated fleet and the programs and services they provide their drivers. Drivers are surveyed to determine what it’s really like to work there. This year, more than 80 fleets were nominated for the award and 51 went through the data collection process. More than 3,200 drivers and owner/operators were surveyed and in the end, 20 fleets were named Best Fleets to Drive For. From those, two grand champions were chosen: Paramount Freight Systems was named Best Fleet for Owner/Operators and Motor Carrier Service was named Best Fleet for Company Drivers. Seven of this year’s finalists are based in Canada.
Only two companies have made the cut in each of the four years the contest has been run: Don Hummer Trucking out of Oxford, Iowa and Saskatoon, Sask.-based Yanke Group. Murrell offered some comforting words to carriers that have dropped off the list in past years: “I really want to underscore, not making the list isn’t any sort of failure,” he said. “There are about 50,000 fleets in North America that are eligible to be part of this program. Just getting nominated says a lot about a fleet.”
So, what are some of the common characteristics among the fleets that consistently perform well in the program?
Murrell said a lot can be learned about a trucking company over the phone when they’re first notified they’ve been nominated. Some carriers welcome the opportunity to participate and assign high-ranking executives to assist with the evaluation process while others are dismissive and hand the project off to a junior representative who isn’t armed with all the necessary information.
“The companies that take this stuff seriously put a senior person onto it, in a lot of cases it’s the owner of the company,” Murrell said. “Other companies assign a junior person who doesn’t have the full information. That tells us a lot about the company and how seriously they’re focused on HR issues.”
When phone interviews are conducted, Murrell said interviewers are paying attention to the background environment. Is it noisy and chaotic? Or is the environment relaxed and calm? During the phone interview, fleets are asked a wide range of questions, but Murrell said four so-called “magic questions” are most telling. They include:
How does the company ensure its total work environment meets the needs of its drivers?: This question covers compensation, benefits, the presence of a career path and other factors that create a positive workplace experience.
How would you describe your hiring process?: Here, Murrell said evaluators often find two distinctly different approaches. Some recruiters are “optimists,” giving a new hire every chance to succeed through mentoring and other initiatives. Others, Murrell describes as “pessimists,” working from a checklist of items that makes a prospective hire unemployable and actively seeking out their shortcomings. “They just move from one failure point to the next,” Murrell explained. “The people looking for those failures tend to find them.”
How do you ensure your drivers are not subjected to, or contribute to, an inappropriate, hostile or toxic work environment?: Here, Murrell said, managers tend to gravitate towards one direction or another, focusing on either protecting employees from abuse or ensuring they aren’t perpetrators of abuse themselves. Companies that have focused more on dealing with abusive employees may have a work environment where such behaviour is widespread, which can set off alarms.
How many training days, on average, do drivers receive each year?: “We ask this question because everybody wants their drivers to stick around, but traditionally trucking has put most of its training in the first year,” Murrell explained. But this appears to be changing, he added. “We’re starting to see it average out more. Four to five days on average is typical in other industries and we’re starting to see some fleets that do that.”
Trends and innovations
Conducting the carrier interviews, and also the driver surveys, has provided program administrators with a gold mine of information that can be used to identify trends on everything from driver compensation to employee benefits. This year, the survey found company drivers working for nominated fleets averaged a salary of $53,673 and ran 112,000 miles. Owner/operators grossed an average of $162,985 and averaged 116,000 miles.
Year to year, Murrell said, the income of drivers and owner/operators hasn’t changed much. Company drivers saw their earnings go up only 1% compared to the previous year while owner/operators enjoyed 5.5% higher income compared to the year before. (Some of that, however, could be attributed to higher fuel surcharges).
Murrell said more fleets are starting to pay their owner/operators a percentage of gross revenue rather than straight mileage.
Drivers continue to complain about running unpaid miles. Carriers have employed all kinds of tricks, such as paying from city limit-to-city limit or zip code-to-zip code. This cheats drivers out of pay for all the inner-city miles they run at either end of the delivery. Surveyed drivers also expressed frustration over tarping pay – or lack thereof – and some said that pay reductions put into place during the recession have yet to be restored, even as volumes have recovered.
Murrell also has noticed that fleets are becoming more sophisticated in how they track performance and distribute bonuses. Bonus structures used to be based on the number of miles run without an accident and/or fuel consumption. Now, Murrell said, fleets are measuring driver performance across a broader spectrum of indicators.
“This year, we saw the emergence of a much more comprehensive package of metrics used to calculate bonuses,” he said. Among the common considerations are: miles; collisions; infractions; idle-time; mpg; customer feedback; on-time percentage; and participation in safety meetings and training programs.
“It recognizes that there’s more to being a driver than driving a lot of miles every quarter and doing it safely,” Murrell said. “It allows people to participate in a bonus program even if they have problems in one area. It’s not an all-or-nothing bonus. It’s less of a bonus and more performance-based pay.”
In most cases, Murrell said, fleets are using driver scorecards to measure performance and determine bonuses. Drivers seem to appreciate the new approach, he added.
What else do drivers like? Perhaps surprising to many readers, drivers who are provided with electronic logs tend to consider it a benefit.
“The drivers using electronic logs have great things to say about it,” Murrell said. Drivers seem to be getting more comfortable with technology and many voiced their desire for in-cab computers and printers. Drivers want unfettered access to the Internet, so they can use social networking sites like Facebook to stay in touch with family, surveys indicated.
One item that caught Murrell’s attention was that even at the best fleets to drive for, turnover remains an issue. Of the surveyed drivers, 28% had been with their current company for less than a year and more than two-thirds of drivers had been there for less than five years.
Another trend that emerged this year was that driver wellness has suddenly become a top of mind issue.
“It really changed this year,” Murrell said. “In the past, wellness was one of those things a few people were doing, the outliers. Wellness entered the mainstream this year and pretty much everybody we talked to has some kind of wellness programs brought in for their drivers.”
Programs include everything from providing on-site nurses to installing inverters so drivers can have a fridge and microwave in their truck. Interestingly, many drivers voiced a desire for an in-ground swimming pool at their terminal so they could get some exercise and swim some laps between loads.
“This year, everybody wants indoor pools,” Murrell said.
Another trend Murrell noticed was that the best fleets are becoming more accommodating to minority drivers. Celadon Canada, which made the Top 20 list, has a large contingent of Muslim drivers, so it serves Muslim-friendly food at company events, takes care not to dispatch loads of cigarettes and alcohol to them, and even has tailored its owner/operator lease programs so that they don’t have to pay interest, which is a violation of Sharia law.
Despite the positive trends, Murrell said some negative perceptions continue to linger, such as the notion women can’t handle flatdeck work or that drivers don’t understand technology.
A Best Fleet: Motor Carrier Service
During his presentation, Murrell highlighted some of the programs that made the winning fleets so successful. Motor Carrier Service (MCS) won the Best Fleet for Company Drivers award, mostly by taking common programs and tweaking them for their own needs.
For instance, rather than issuing a fuel bonus only to the top-performing drivers, the company pays $100 per month to every driver that averages 7 mpg or better. The top five performers receive an additional $100, but there’s no limit to how many drivers can earn their bonus.
“They don’t have to be the best, they just have to hit a certain threshold,” Murrell said. About a third of MCS’s drivers hit the mark each month. MCS also pays drivers $200 for every clean inspection, as well as $25 to the mechanic for both the tractor and the trailer when it passes an inspection. This creates some camaraderie between driver and mechanic and has them both working towards the same goal, Murrell noted. As a result, MCS has mostly clean inspections.
When setting up a comprehensive bonus program, MCS asked the drivers what they wanted to be scored on. Drivers came back with some surprising suggestions, including attitude and cleanliness of their trucks.
MCS also has a driver liaison program, paying a bonus to longtime drivers who in turn assist newer hires with any difficulties that come up. It also hosts twice-yearly safety rodeos, where drivers put their skills on display in front of their peers in a variety of challenges. It becomes a very interactive safety meeting, Murrell noted.
MCS developed an interesting wellness program dubbed The Walk to Las Vegas. Drivers and office staff are broken into teams and then convert various physical activities into a corresponding number of steps. The first team to walk the equivalent of a trip to Las Vegas wins $2,000.
“It gets people moving, gets them active,” said Murrell. “It also allows them to bond as a community because office staff and drivers are working together.”
A Best Fleet: Paramount Freight Systems
Many owner/operator-based fleets are afraid to provide programs to their people, for fear of blurring the line between company driver and independent operator, which could lead to problems with the tax man. However, Murrell said progressive owner/operator fleets are able to provide programs without threatening their status as independent operators.
Paramount Freight Systems, which has won the Best Fleet for Owner/Operators award the past two years, has done just that. For starters, Paramount awards owner/operators who stay on by increasing their pay by one cent per mile each year. It also pays for all their tolls and has negotiated on behalf of its owner/operators a parts discount through a vast network of retailers. As a result, its owner/operators pay just 7% above cost for parts through select retailers.
Paramount has driver of the week, month and year programs that issue $250, $500 and $1,500 rewards respectively. Paramount also has provided its O/Os with the latest in-cab technology, including scanners and electronic logs. It also enrolls its O/Os in a CSA scorecard program so they can monitor their own safety record and be on the lookout for any false reports.
Social media is where Paramount “really shines,” Murrell said. Paramount has a Facebook page that’s liked by 262 people. Owner/ops use the site to communicate with office staff in what has become a “virtual water cooler” of sorts.
Photos of company functions are uploaded to the Facebook photo albums, keeping owner/operators informed on the latest happenings. Owner/ops are also invited to upload pictures of their trucks and can win gift certificates to restaurants for the best pictures. The by-product is that owner/operators take more pride in how their equipment looks.
Paramount also uses Survey Monkey to conduct regular surveys of its drivers. This allows the company to get on top of any issues quickly. It also surveys new owner/operators when hired, to find out why they left their previous company.
“You never get good information during exit interviews but when someone’s coming on-board, you get good information on why they left to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes,” Murrell pointed out.
Paramount also runs a “buddy program,” which is rare among owner/operator fleets.
Becoming a Best Fleet
Having spent four years studying the best practices of the best fleets to drive for, Murrell is in a position to identify some of their common traits. So, how do you become a Best Fleet winner? For starters, Murrell said it’s important to get buy-in from top executives.
“The number one thing is to get the executive team engaged,” he said. “That’s where we see the biggest difference.”
Next, he suggested fleets survey their drivers to identify areas of concern.
“You’re going to find some very simple things that are easy to implement,” he said.
Murrell also advised fleets to figure out what they do best and focus on their strengths. Fleets that lack an identity, or try to be everything to everyone, tend not to provide the greatest workplaces, he said. Murrell also said carriers should get on top of operations to address the source of most driver complaints.
“Time after time, operations is the thing the source of the problems,” Murrell said. “We see a lot of comments from drivers who say the company believes in this, but operations doesn’t.”
Murrell also said some carriers must do a better job of informing drivers about what services and programs are available to them. Driver surveys indicate that often, drivers aren’t even aware of the programs their carrier offers.
And finally, Murrell suggested that carriers set measurable objectives in order to continuously improve working conditions for drivers and owner/operators.
How not to become a ‘best fleet’
Among the many great programs and initiatives run by fleets nominated into the Best Fleets to Drive For program, there are a few such programs that may have been created with the best of intentions, but questionable results.
Mark Murrell, president of CarriersEdge, which administers the competition, spoke of a couple such programs.
One carrier looking to reduce its crash costs created a profit-sharing fund and then deducted crash-related costs from the pot throughout the year. Worse, it outed the drivers responsible for any incident by posting their name and the amount of money their accident cost the fund.
“I can tell you they’re a very safe fleet, but a Best Fleet to Drive For? I don’t think so,” Murrell said.
Another company has set up a spot outside its driver entrance where its wrecked vehicles would be parked with a sign that said: ‘Don’t let this happen to you.’ As a result, Murrell said drivers live in fear of making a mistake and having it put on display.
“Anytime you have a section of your parking lot set aside for a wreck, you’re going to have a wreck,” he said. “The problem is, drivers walk by it every single time they go in and out and the problem with that is, they’re not thinking ‘I’m really excited to haul some freight for these guys,’ they’re thinking ‘Holy crap, I hope that’s not me’!”