Becoming a ‘Best Fleet’ to drive for

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TORONTO, Ont. – Having completed its third year, the Best Fleets to Drive For program is beginning to provide real insight into what drivers and owner/operators value from their carriers.

The program, administered by Canadian tech firm CarriersEdge and the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) identifies the best fleets to drive for in Canada and the US. The contest is open to US and Canadian for-hire carriers with 10 trucks or more, however they must be nominated by one of their drivers or owner/operators. Canadian carriers have traditionally fared quite well, winning six of the top 20 positions in the 2011 edition. Canadian winners this year included: Bison Transport of Winnipeg, Man., Erb Group of New Hamburg, Ont., Brian Kurtz Trucking of Breslau, Ont., MacKinnon Transport of Guelph, Ont., Vedder Transportation Group of Abbotsford, B.C., and Yanke Group of Saskatoon, Sask. Trimac Transportation’s Houston, Texas operations also made the cut.

But what is it about these companies – and the 14 US carriers that also made the list – that makes them special in the eyes of their drivers?

Mark Murrell, president of CarriersEdge and founder of the program, has interviewed thousands of drivers over the past three years to find out what it is they like – or don’t like – about the carrier they work for. Some of the findings are surprising. Others, not so much. For the past two years, Murrell has taken to the road and conducted a cross-country seminar series through which he shares the secrets of the Best Fleets to Drive For.

Money matters
Compensation, not surprisingly, is important to drivers. But it’s not always the most important consideration. As part of the evaluation process, Murrell has determined that Canadian fleets are, for the most part, paying their drivers and owner/operators a whole lot more than carriers to the south.

The Canadian winning fleets paid their company drivers an average of $61,637 while their owner/operators grossed $172,034. US company drivers meanwhile, were paid an average of $48,387 and their owner/operators earned $145,821.

“Our American friends are paying their people a whole lot less,” Murrell surmised at the Mississauga seminar in June.

However, he noted an increase this year in the number of fleets offering profit sharing (seven of the participating fleets now offer some form of profit sharing, up from just one a year ago and none in the first year of the contest).

“It will be interesting to see what happens with that over the next several years,” Murrell said, noting three carriers that were in the program last year have added profit sharing to their compensation packages over the past year.

While compensation is important to drivers, it’s interesting to note that the top placing fleet for company drivers, Fremont Contract Carriers, only pays its company drivers about $50,000 a year. It’s an incentive-laden compensation package that, when 30,000 miles are reached in a quarter, offers a one cent per mile bonus for: running safely; delivering on-time; having fewer than 8% out-of-route miles; and purchasing 90% of their fuel from the carrier’s preferred network. That can add up to a four cent a mile bonus, or $1,200 per quarter based on 30,000 miles.

In interviews, most drivers said while FCC doesn’t offer the best pay, they offer steady miles and treat drivers fairly.

Comments like ‘I get paid okay, (other) companies pay a lot better but run you too hard or may not have the miles,’ indicate that drivers enjoy working at FCC for reasons beyond the pay package, Murrell noted.

“FCC came up with a compensation program that pays people for doing what they’re supposed to be doing and disincentivizes them from doing what they’re not supposed to be doing and it is only costing them $50,000 a year. That’s a really well put together program,” Murrell said.

Based on survey results, Murrell has concluded that drivers are more concerned that there’s a connection between performance and pay than they are about the overall pay package.

“If they’re a good driver with seniority, they want to be paid more than the next guy,” Murrell noted.

An interesting trend that revealed itself during this year’s competition is the increased use of technology to improve driver satisfaction. Specifically, Murrell noticed a more widespread use of Google Maps – especially Streetview – to provide drivers with more detailed information on what to expect when they deliver a load. Dispatchers can easily send drivers a Streetview link that allows them to see the lay of the land before arriving at a receiver’s destination. If there are any tight turns or obstacles, the driver can seek out a safer route beforehand with a few clicks of the mouse.

“Something like this is a lot more useful than old-style illustrated maps,” Murrell pointed out. “It gives you a lot more information about where you’re going and what you can expect when you get there.”

Drivers can use Google Maps to plan their delivery approaches and back at the terminal, Murrell said progressive fleet managers are using the same tool to scout out prospective customers’ properties and even for accident reconstruction and training.

“This year, everybody is doing it,” Murrell said of Google mapping technology. “It makes so much sense and gives you so much information, everybody has jumped on it.”

Another emerging trend is the increased use of social media to keep drivers connected. Murrell cited the example of Kennesaw Transportation, which has a Facebook site drivers and operations staff can visit to exchange information. It also serves as a good recruitment tool, Murrell noted, since prospective new hires can visit the site and interact with current Kennesaw staff. The carrier’s Facebook page has more than 480 friends and the fleet runs just 225 trucks, so it’s obviously been effective at drawing in visitors beyond its own workforce.

Another social media tool being used by a growing number of carriers is Twitter. Paramount Freight Systems uses Twitter (@DrivePFS) to broadcast announcements such as driver birthdays and anniversaries as well as weather alerts. Drivers receive the updates via their smart phones and can respond themselves, providing two-way dialogue that can’t be achieved with a notice pinned to the bulletin board in the lunchroom.

One surprising trend that caught Murrell’s attention was an increased interest in daycare facilities. Prime Inc. built a terminal several years ago that includes a daycare centre, which prompted Murrell to survey drivers on the issue. The first years’ surveys indicated drivers were indifferent about daycare service at their terminals, but this year interest suddenly spiked, Murrell said.

“We were going to pull the plug on that question and then all of a sudden this year, surveys came in that showed us that at Schneider National, 39% of drivers surveyed said daycare would be very valuable or valuable,” Murrell noted. “If we see 39% of people at Schneider National have an interest in daycare, there’s a shift that’s about to take place.”

Murrell concluded the younger generation of drivers just now coming into the workforce sees value in employer-provided daycare services.

“As we see younger drivers coming into the workforce, that is going to be a differentiator,” Murrell suggested.

While employer-provided daycare is not outlandish, some of the suggestions from drivers were borderline. One anonymous driver said a drop-off laundry service would be the “next frontier” of driver retention.

“Every terminal in the company would eventually have some of my clean clothes, just like mom’s house,” the driver pointed out. “And it would tie me on because if I quit, how would I get my clothes? It’s about $20 to do laundry at the truck stop. Laundry is clutter, affecting safety. The next real frontier in driver retention is drop-off laundry service.”

Other interesting suggestions for imp
roving life at the terminals included a fishing pond for relaxation and a room where drivers could go to “get personal.”

Secrets of the large fleets
Large fleets evaluated as part of the Best Fleets to Drive For program shared much in common, including the use of driver scorecards to measure performance.

“We see driver scorecards as being pervasive at these companies but they’re starting to go to the next level and take that data and aggregate it to do things like build a risk profile,” Murrell noted. He singled out Trimac’s predictive modeling tool, which identifies drivers who are more likely to be involved in an accident and singles them out for remedial training.
Surveys indicated that scorecards are in most cases welcomed by the drivers, who see them as being a fair and consistent form of performance evaluation.

Large fleets identified as the best to drive for also tend to have mentoring programs in place for new hires, Murrell noted. Bison Transport, for instance, has a Driver Advisory Board that is consulted by management when it’s looking to implement new policies.

For its part, Schneider National has Training Engineers – essentially roaming mentors -who other drivers can approach anytime for help. The TEs have decals on their trucks and special clothing to identify them and they’ve become known as the go-to folks when other drivers have a question or need some advice. In some cases, Murrell noted, they are even approached by drivers who work for other companies, as the program has become well known.

Ongoing training is another benefit offered by most of the best big fleets to drive for. Murrell pointed out Dart Transit put its owner/operators through a training program that saw them improve their earnings by an average of US$3,500 per year.

Secrets of the small fleets
While the large fleets have more resources for large-scale training programs, the little guys are also getting creative to achieve the same types of results, Murrell pointed out. The main advantage of small carriers is their ability to get to know drivers by name, something the surveys indicate is important. Brian Kurtz Trucking stands out in this area, Murrell said. New hires have a weekly meeting with management for their first 90 days.

“It’s a great way to make sure those people are ramping up properly and any problems don’t sit there for long,” he said.
Small fleets are also generally able to offer more consistent delivery routes, since they serve a smaller customer base. The philosophy at Kurtz, Murrell said, is to send drivers where they want to go. As a result, the program’s evaluation process has determined that Kurtz has the highest productivity of any of the Best Fleets winners, and also the highest average income.
“They send drivers where they want to go, so they are more productive,” Murrell concluded.

While small fleets don’t have the sophisticated mentoring programs that some of the mega-fleets have, Murrell said they generally assign driver liaisons that serve as a middleman between drivers and upper management.

“It covers the same objectives as a driver advisory board but on a much smaller scale,” he noted. Small carriers are also better able to recognize driver achievements.

Where carriers fail
There are two areas where carriers struggle to satisfy their drivers – areas Murrell identified as minefields: maintenance and operations.

The Best Fleets program has found that maintenance-related concerns are among the top complaints from drivers. Drivers often feel mechanics don’t take their complaints seriously and too often they feel their concerns are ignored.

On the other hand, a well-run shop with technicians that listen to the drivers can have an enormous impact on driver satisfaction, as evidenced by this comment from a Con-way driver: “Con-way/CFI has the best shop,” he wrote. “It has the very best shops in the industry, outperforming dealerships in terms of what it is able to do. They might as well just hang out a Kenworth sign.”

The other most common source of driver complaints is operations, or more specifically dispatch. Drivers frequently complained that upper management may buy into its safety program but dispatch and operations does not. Drivers also are easily upset when they raise concerns about shipper or receiver facilities and there is no follow-through from the carrier. Murrell said many times drivers identify issues such as inconsistent service levels at shippers and receivers (one shift being more responsive than another, for instance) and yet the carrier does little to address the problem. Non-responsiveness can create hard feelings that fester.

How to be a best fleet
So, what does a carrier have to do to make the list in the 2012 edition of the Best Fleets to Drive For program? Murrell said there’s no one magic bullet that will land a company on the list. He said to look at repeat winners like Bison and Yanke for inspiration.

“We see year after year, they’re getting on the list and there are certain things they are doing that’s making a difference,” Murrell said. He also emphasized the importance of ensuring buy-in from upper management.

“If your executive team is not engaged, get them engaged or dust off your resume and move on,” he suggested.  From there, fleets should make sure they “walk the walk,” or follow through with their promises. Driver scorecards and benchmarking can help carriers identify and address problem areas before they get out of control, Murrell suggested.

Finally, Murrell encouraged all fleets to survey their own drivers and find out how they’re feeling.

“Find the low-hanging fruit and start doing those and very quickly drivers will see you’re paying attention and listening,” Murrell added.

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