Controlling driver turnover begins with the hiring process

A trucking company can generally trace its success or struggles with driver retention right back to the hiring process.

“Right off the hop, I look at their work history,” Mike Zelek, director of human resources with Wellington Motor Freight told Today’s Trucking. “It’s a nice feel-good story to hire someone who’s been kicked around a bunch and to be their forever home.”

But it usually doesn’t end well, he admitted. So, one of the things he looks for is a consistent employment history. And it’s been working. Wellington, which has 50 company drivers and 10 owner-operators, hasn’t had a driver resign since October 2019.

Jennifer McConnell, owner of MRS Consulting Group, says fleets that don’t have a human resources professional involved in the hiring process are at a disadvantage and often don’t follow established hiring protocols. Take reference checks, for example.

“I have to walk away from candidates all the time after finding out they rolled a truck and didn’t tell us about it, or damaged cargo because of insecure loads,” she said, noting drivers can be misleading about their work history knowing many fleets don’t check into it. “If you don’t do your reference checks up-front, you are walking in blind with an employee who is jumping ship from another company.”

“I take the time to highlight the drawbacks of the job, such as if there’s an early start, or they have to work every Saturday.”

Michael Zelek, Wellington Motor Group

But that’s not to say a driver should be written off just because of a prior incident. Checking references allows a recruiter to get a better understanding of the circumstances around the event in question. In some cases, a crash occurred that was of no fault of their own.

“Drivers have accidents for all kinds of reasons, including other people on the road,” McConnell said. “I had a driver who blacked out because of a brain tumor. That’s very different than somebody going too fast around a bend.”

She said recruiters should request an accident review, which should be done following any accident regardless of severity, and that they look at the driver’s past five years at minimum. Zelek said full transparency at the time of hiring is also essential to maintaining a satisfied driving force. Before posting a recruitment ad, he asks the operations manager 30-35 questions about what the job will entail.

“This ensures I understand the role and can explain it to drivers,” Zelek said. “I take the time to highlight the drawbacks of the job, such as if there’s an early start, or they have to work every Saturday. I just want to make sure I’m putting a square peg in a square hole.”

If the fit isn’t right, Zelek doesn’t hesitate to steer them to another company that may be a better fit for them.

“Be focused on the long game,” he suggested. “If you’re going to develop a name and reputation in this industry, no good deed goes unnoticed.”

Navneet Dhindsa, AirTime Express’s health and safety manager (right) with a driver. (Photo: AirTime Express)

Will they stay or will the go?

Once drivers choose a company to work for, their treatment will go a long way towards determining whether or not they will stay with the company long-term. Promoting a safe workplace is one way fleets can ensure lower turnover.

“The number one question I ask is, are they a safe driver?” Mark MacAlpine, president of AirTime Express said of the hiring process at the fleet that was recognized this year as a Fleet to Watch under the Best Fleets to Drive For competition. “If they are safe drivers, nine out of 10 times we will find a way to make it work.”

Navneet Dhindsa, the company’s health and safety manager, said there’s a direct correlation between safety and driver satisfaction.

“Our safety-oriented culture changed everything with it,” she said. “It has helped us keep drivers long-term and we want to make sure we continue on that path and improve. Job satisfaction starts with safety.”

It also includes being treated as well as those in the office. McConnell said she finds it “bizarre” that trucking companies often offer better benefits to office workers than drivers.

AirTime Express recently rolled out an RRSP contribution program to its drivers – including owner-operators – to address this inequity.

“We got some great feedback from that,” said MacAlpine. “I want to make sure they are taken care of when they reach retirement age.”

A crossfit training apparatus at the new fitness facility opened by AirTime Express. (Photo: James Menzies)

The company also transformed a sizeable portion of its Toronto warehouse into a gym for employees, something the company feels contributes to their mental and physical health.

“It has definitely helped with retention and recruitment,” said Monika MacAlpine, human resources manager for AirTime Express. “Being a driver can be an extremely lonely and stressful job, and mental health is so important. Creating this facility has provided a space for drivers to unwind and de-stress. I think the benefit of fitness is so underestimated in the world of trucking and it impacts one’s mental and physical wellbeing.”

Fleets that have achieved low driver turnover have something else in common; they constantly solicit driver feedback. AirTime Express pushes surveys right to drivers’ phones and has procedures in place to quickly address the most common complaints, such as pay accuracy.

McConnell said trucking companies that embrace diversity will generally better retain drivers, and suggested learning tools be diverse as well to cater to different learning styles. She also said companies need to work with shippers to ensure drivers’ time isn’t wasted, and to ensure “revenge dispatching” doesn’t occur when a driver passes on a load due to a family commitment.

“This continuously drives people out of the industry,” she said of dispatching conflicts and excess detention time.

When they leave

Even the best run companies will experience some driver turnover eventually. It’s important to follow up with drivers who leave to find out the reasons. Some can be resolved, others can’t. At AirTime Express, for instance, much of the driving is done at nighttime due to the nature of its business, something some drivers find increasingly difficult as they age.

MacApline speaks directly to every driver who leaves the company, and then follows up with them later in case they want to return. He recently called a driver 10 months after he left the company and discovered he wanted to return.

(Photo: Wellington Motor Group)

“This driver came back and is doing local work, and we are training him to become a driver manager,” said MacApline. “That happens a lot, where they’re embarrassed or ashamed to call back and say they made a mistake or it wasn’t what they expected [when they left].”

At Wellington Motor Freight, company president Derek Koza meets with every new hire and ensures they know they can contact him directly any time. It’s those little things, like treating drivers like individuals, that help differentiate a company, Zelek said. It’s also important to promote those differentiators.

“All recruiting ads say great miles, great home time; you can put any company logo in front of those words and the ads will look the same,” he said. “Do something different.”

The fixer

Ray Haight got a cold dose of reality after winning a driver retention award on behalf of MacKinnon Transport in 2003. The award recognized his efforts to reduce driver turnover from 120% to 20% over two years. But when he mentioned the award to friends from outside the industry, they laughed at him.

“Twenty per cent? What do you do, beat your employees?” one chided. Right then, Haight changed his perspective about driver turnover in the trucking industry, acknowledging 20% turnover was nothing to celebrate, even in an industry that often averages five times that rate.

Today, Haight is driver retention coach with the Truckload Carriers Association. When a fleet struggles to retain its drivers, they call in Haight. He begins by asking the company for an organization chart.

Ray Haight (Photo: James Menzies)

“If I see that org chart with a president and 15 lines going to that one person, I know this is a boss not a leader,” Haight said. “It’s someone who’s got to have their fingerprint on everything and the company is going to have trouble, because it has not empowered people to make decisions.”

He also asks the business leader what the company’s driver turnover rate is.

“If I can’t get a quick answer without a whole lot of conjecture, I know they’re not measuring it,” he said.

Fleet managers often complain drivers leave the company for a rate per mile, something Haight disagrees with.

“You’ve got to peel back the onion,” he said. “Yes, it could be driver wage, but it may be because drivers aren’t getting enough miles, or dispatch isn’t organized, or customers aren’t turning them around quick enough. Companies may not need to raise their pay rate, they may need to get their shit together.”

Communication is vital to keeping employees, and that should extend to drivers’ families, Haight recommends.

“Get into the house,” he urged. “I really pound it into the carriers that I work with, that you have to get communication flowing into the drivers’ homes.”

This can be done through newsletters addressed to family members, coloring contests for the kids, Facebook pages for spouses, scholarships for children, and celebrating family members’ accolades. Drivers considering leaving for greener pastures will be hesitant when their family has a relationship with the company they work for.

Haight also said fleets need to do more to celebrate their safety records.

“Most [carriers] have good safety records but don’t use it to their advantage,” he said. “You can’t go into the DOT store and say I’ll take that one. You have to earn it, and it takes dedication and hard work.”

He singles out Bison Transport as a company that does this well, through its Right to Decide initiative. While most fleets empower drivers to pull over when they feel driving is unsafe, he said few make it an official, well communicated policy.

Another tool for retaining drivers is to equip them with the knowledge needed to succeed. Haight said employers can help drivers develop a budget and determine the income they need to generate to maintain the lifestyle they want. Is it attainable? Does the carrier monitor drivers’ income and proactively reach out to them to discuss anomalies? Did the driver take some time off, or did the company let them down with inadequate miles?

Today, Haight takes great pride in helping fleets reduce their driver turnover. One 350-truck fleet he has been working with has seen its driver turnover go from 200% to 60%.

“About 450 people didn’t have to go home and say ‘I don’t have a job anymore,’” he said.

But he’s not handing out awards for 60% turnover, 20%, or even less.

“It’s out of control,” he said of the issue. “Most fleets I’m talking to right now have 10-15% of their trucks unseated. That’s a hell of a cash drag on a company. It’s pretty scary stuff.”

James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 18 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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  • Enjoyed reading what some companies are doing. To retain drivers sounds promising, feeling you are part of the company goes a long way to making a driver feel good about self esteem not just a number but a important part of the team

  • I think if the Transport companies were really serious about attracting and retaining Truck Drivers they would pay hourly wages equivalent to any trades person and pay overtime after accumulating 40 hours and not the 60 hours they get away with which is the federal rule. As it stands now, trucking companies don’t have to pay overtime to highway drivers after 40 hrs on duty ,but Bus drivers who work highway do get overtime after 40 on duty.
    Trucking companies have improved a little in terms of respect and equipment, but still way behind on pay and home time. Work/Life balance is also a big negative for the trucking industry.

  • Driver replacement will never go away, and it is not just the money.
    Away from home and no family contact is mentaly difficult.
    It is not just the money.
    Has anyone ever done a survey about marriage and family time?
    Lots of divorces and that is a shame.
    Companies should invest in mental health studies for their employees, as well as wages.
    Just my opinion.

  • Money and respect. Plain and simple.

    I don’t do companies that tells you one thing, and then they BS you around… Nor companies that offer competitive ‘bottom of the barrel’ wages.