Over the past couple of years, prior to the price of fuel rising at alarming rates, one of the bigger concerns facing fleet operators has been the shortage of qualified drivers.
There have been plenty of articles in the trade press on the subject, and lots of op-ed pieces by industry experts trying to explain the phenomenon, with no definitive solutions being offered. Carriers have therefore taken a variety of approaches to attracting and keeping good drivers, including adjusting rates of pay, adding bonuses, immigration, and actually listening to drivers’ suggestions for improving operations.
There have been seminars and publications dedicated to providing all the information a fleet manager might need to help ensure a constant supply of qualified drivers. In fact so much ink and airtime has been used on the subject of the qualified driver shortage that we have almost overlooked shortages in what may well be the most critical position in the industry: the dispatcher.
During my time in this industry, I have always clung to the belief that dispatcher may be the worst job or at the very least the most under-appreciated job in trucking. It takes an individual with an extraordinary ability to constantly juggle a boatload of activities and conflicting demands, while responding to questions from inside and outside the organization. Burn-out and job dissatisfaction are often the norm, contributing to regular turnover.
Let’s face it, the dispatcher is at the centre of everything that the fleet does.
They hear from irate customers when the load is late, from irate drivers who don’t like something about their assignment, from irate bosses or salespeople who are chasing down one single shipment among the many the dispatcher is concerned with. And on the odd day that everything goes smoothly, all shipments delivered on time, and all drivers happy, does anyone remember to say thanks or acknowledge a job well done?
No, dispatchers need particularly thick skin, organizational skills beyond the comprehension of most mortals, and enormous patience to do the job well. And for the most part, they are put in that role without any real training beyond a few days with the incumbent (if he hasn’t already quit in frustration). They deserve better, and wise managers make sure they get it.
In most companies it is standard practice, in fact almost mandatory that employees maintain a continuous learning path, often paid for by the company. It’s good business sense and there is generally a net benefit to the employer in terms of performance and retention.
But those same employers seldom if ever think about the benefits of offering formal training for their dispatchers. Beyond the talents I’ve already described, a dispatcher needs to be a supervisor, a motivator, a coach, a disciplinarian, an expert on labour and safety regulations, a recruiter, and over-riding all of this, needs well-developed interpersonal skills to deal with frustrated or angry customers, drivers and internal staff. They are often expected to somehow accumulate these skills through on-the-job experience.
Those demands, coupled with limited training, make it difficult for fleets to find and, as importantly, retain good dispatchers. It seems ironic to me that an individual in such a critical position, with so much riding on their decisions and on their skills, would be left on their own to figure out the nuances of the job. Fortunately, there are alternatives to learn-as-you-go that are utilized by progressive companies.
For example, Transcom Fleet Services (www.transcomfleetservices.com) offers two-day and eight-day interactive courses that address over 40 topics with which every competent dispatcher should be familiar. These seminars, with a very limited enrollment numbers to encourage participation, have proven very popular and are sold-out on a regular basis.
Also, the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council ( www.cthrc.com) offers an e-learning course, that teaches interpersonal skills such as conflict resolution, motivation, managing stress, and professional skills such as HR management, profitable routing, and legal requirements of shipping.
Some people, such as Shaw Tracking’s vice-president of business services, Mike Ham, get it. A number of years ago Shaw introduced Dispatcher of the Year awards, presented through various provincial trucking associations, and a National Dispatcher of the Year award.
The awards, based on input from customers, drivers, and employers, emphasize the importance of the position.
“The award provides much-deserved recognition to outstanding dispatchers,”according to Ham, who went on to say “The most significant form of recognition is that of your peers and your customers.” And he is absolutely correct.
So why don’t more companies invest in their dispatchers? If dispatchers are part of your team you might want to ask yourself that same question.
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