Truck News


Attracting and retaining drivers takes a human touch

EDMONTON, Alta. - There seems to be no simple solution to the industry-wide driver shortage hovering over the trucking industry; but if there were, it wouldn't really be a problem in the first place.

EDMONTON, Alta. – There seems to be no simple solution to the industry-wide driver shortage hovering over the trucking industry; but if there were, it wouldn’t really be a problem in the first place.

Rather than create a checklist of strategies to tackle the problem, Markel Insurance assembled a panel of trucking industry experts and sent them on a nationwide tour to create discussion on the topic and perhaps create some new solutions.

The Markel Let’s Talk information series, Let’s Talk about…Managing Your Drivers, kicked off its tour on July 10 in Moncton, N.B. The five-city tour arrived in Edmonton on July 18, where a number of industry stakeholders filled a conference room to listen to the panel of speakers.

The four-person panel was set to discuss emerging trends in the trucking industry and possible ways to use the trends in a carrier’s favour to attract and retain quality drivers.

“Holding a Class 1 licence does not necessarily make you a qualified driver,” said Linda Gauthier, executive director of the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council (CTHRC). “Carriers are saying they’re having a difficult time finding qualified people.”

The CTHRC estimated 37,000 drivers will be needed between 2003 and 2008, to fill Class 1 and Class 3 vacancies. For Class 1 vacancies alone, the number is about 22,000.

“We need to ensure people understand the lifestyle, and train people to the driving standard and not just the licensing standard,” added Gauthier.

Is anybody there?

The first step in finding drivers to fill out a fleet is knowing where to look and what those people are actually looking for.

“Young people and even second career people are looking for a career path. The young people you bring in will probably only be around for about five years,” explained Gauthier. “Rather than get upset, you need to build your plan around that, and the key hopefully is to move them around inside the industry.”

In a survey conducted by the CTHRC, only 24% of new hires were under 35 years of age and 73% had some form of post-secondary or formal training.

“More and more we are finding people coming in as a second career,” Gauthier said. “They are older and have life experience, but are staying for five or six years and moving on.”

Gauthier explained that although both young hires and second career hires are moving on in five or six years, each age group is looking for something different. While younger people tend to lean towards opportunities that provide travel and career opportunities, older hires tend to want to stay closer to home and are content to work the job they were hired to do.

“New hires and experienced drivers have different priorities for picking current employers,” she said. “There is something that can be done, it’s just a matter of being more creative in how you do things.”

Some strategies which the CTHRC found had a high effectiveness in attracting and retaining drivers are: well-maintained equipment; pre/well-organized paperwork; paid wait times; clean cabs; training opportunities; a signing bonus; benefits package and RSP contributions.

“Not everything fits with every company and there are a lot of elements in there,” commented Gauthier.

The rules of attraction

In a quick survey of the audience, the session’s mediator and accomplished journalist John G. Smith, asked how many companies were offering a signing bonus to new drivers, and not a single hand went up in the room. When asked who was offering a bonus to drivers who brought in new recruits, about half of the people in attendance raised their hands.

The most common method for attracting new drivers is to place an ad in a trade magazine, or hire a designated recruiter to drive around in a company vehicle and try to poach drivers from other companies.

“We use word-of-mouth, and we pay a bonus to drivers who bring in people. Being a smaller operation we don’t have the money to paint up a van and I don’t agree with that anyway,” said Brian Kurtz, president of Brian Kurtz Trucking.

Operating more than 50 trucks and 100 trailers out of Guelph, Ont., Kurtz has been in business since 1980 and retains his drivers using a family touch.

“It’s because of our personal touch. We’re a family company, and I meet every driver, we make sure they understand the rules, regulations and also how they get paid,” he explained. “They like to be treated as a name, not a driver. My door is open and they can come in and talk to me about personal things. They can talk about the wife and kids, I don’t want to know everything, but if there’s a problem that’s going to affect the job, I need to know. You need to be honest and up-front; being one-on-one is big in our industry.”

Another way to keep employees within a company is to offer them a chance to grow.

“I knew I wasn’t always going to drive truck and looked at the corporate structure to see if it was a place I wanted to grow,” explained Dennis McMarty, chair of the Professional Driver Certificate Program at Red Deer College. “With the students now, a lot are looking for a place they can learn and train, it’s a real positive touch for these students to be able to grow.”

“I think to a large extent trucking has a 50-year tradition of not wanting to train people, but that’s a ship we’re beginning to turn,” added Roy Craigen, president of Transcom Fleet Services. “I can’t paint the entire industry, because there are some companies out there (that do a lot of training), but that’s what we’re finding.”

Not only have the training practices changed over the years, but the hiring process has become less of a handshake and here’s your keys affair.

“In the past – 15 or 18 years ago – you went around the block with a driver and could tell if he could drive a truck or not,” explained Kurtz. “The training now is far stricter and far more important than it was in the past. We do one to two weeks of orientation now, years ago it was a one-day process and off you go. One of the big things we look for now, is cooperation and communication with other people.”

Of course, it would be nearly impossible to talk about pleasing employees and not broach the subject of money.

“When people leave our company, it’s never for money,” said Kurtz. “The people that are struggling to keep and attract drivers are the rate cutters. We offer progressive wage increases and holidays.”

At the end of the day, according to Craigen, it all comes down to a good corporate philosophy and a team-oriented attitude.

“It comes down to the training of your front-line staff,” he said. “They all need to understand that whether you’re one truck or 1,000, you’re not lowering the bar for anyone. It’s better to go short than to go bad.”

Keeping the team together

According to CTHRC, the turnover rate in the trucking industry has declined from 36% in 2002, to 23% in 2006.

Retention is not the biggest problem, but keeping the trend heading in a downwards direction is important, and as Craigen points out, it all comes back to a corporate philosophy.

“The philosophy a carrier can adopt is, a driver is the manager of a mobile profit centre,” he explained. “The individual driver is managing all those things. We have to get past the lip service, it goes back to the strategy that drivers are a valuable asset. If you spend time and money on education and training, take care of that asset.”

A key to Kurtz’s success at retaining drivers is dealing with every problem immediately before it becomes a larger problem.

“We have a driver representative that works on the local level and if we have a problem or complaint, it gets dealt with immediately,” he commented. “We have a driver ballot box, which is opened every Monday morning by the Safety and Compliance people and you have to deal with it now. You can’t wait until down the road when it comes to drivers.”

Sometimes when contemplating a retention strategy it’s also important to
take a quick glance in the mirror.

“We’re eager to assess and discipline our drivers, but on an annual basis are they assessing us?” noted Craigen. “Anonymous analysis will work well to let you know how you’re doing in the eyes of the drivers.”

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