PAY IT FORWARD: The business case for investing in driver training

It may come as a surprise that in an industry as highly regulated as trucking, there’s really no requirements regarding how much training trucking companies must provide their drivers upon hiring them. There’s really no such thing as ‘normal’ when it comes to driver training programs.

Some carriers consider training an unnecessary expense they’re unwilling to incur, while others have implemented training programs that extend well beyond the hiring process and orientation. Changing attitudes have shown that most quality drivers prefer to work for carriers that provide ongoing training, and ever-rising operating costs have helped fleets make the business case for investing in training.

Mark Murrell, president of online training provider CarriersEdge, is also a founder of the Truckload Carriers Association’s Best Fleets to Drive For competition, which rewards carriers that provide the best workplaces for drivers. Part of the evaluation process involves surveying thousands of drivers on what they like – or don’t like – about the carrier for whom they drive.

“The one thing we see is that drivers universally want more training,” Murrell said. “Looking at the surveys we have, 90% of the drivers say they agree or strongly agree that training is important. One of the most common things we see when we ask what things they would like to see change at the company they work for is, they’d like to see more training opportunities.”

Carriers that provide industry-leading driver training programs don’t do so because they have money to burn; they see it as an investment that pays back in the form of: reduced accident costs; lower driver turnover; improved fuel efficiency; and increased business from safety-conscious customers.

A defensive driver is a fuel-efficient driver

‘It isn’t in the budget,’ may be the most commonly recited excuse for not providing ongoing driver training. While teaching defensive driving techniques may reduce accident frequency, it’s tricky to pinpoint an ROI since you can’t measure the costs of the crashes that never happened.

But more carriers are realizing there’s a correlation between defensive driving training and improved fuel economy.

A case in point is Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a private fleet in the US operating 220 delivery trucks. When the company taught its drivers the Smith System for defensive driving, it couldn’t have imagined it would save a million dollars in fuel annually within six years, but that’s exactly what happened. The company trimmed its fuel spend by a million dollars in 2013 and has seen its fleet-wide fuel economy climb from 7.1 to 8.66 mpg.

Bill Perry, safety and compliance manager with Hill’s, said “With a little bit of training, a little bit of encouragement and a little bit of technology, you’re going to see numbers very similar to that without a whole lot of effort.”

Hill’s began spec’ing more fuel-efficient equipment including automated transmissions, installed on-board computers to monitor driving habits, idle time and fuel economy, and then grouped drivers into teams and rewarded them for surpassing fuel economy benchmarks. Teams were able to earn quarterly bonuses of up to 5% by surpassing their targets. When the program was fully developed, any decreases in crash costs the company initially set out to achieve was gravy and the fuel savings alone was more than adequate to justify the training investment.

Changing driver behaviour

Even experienced drivers can develop bad habits over time. Identifying these habits early can provide fuel economy benefits and reduce the likelihood of a collision.

“Behavioural modifications are available with little to no capital investment,” Dwayne Haug of Werner Enterprises said during a recent panel discussion on fuel efficiency at the Technology & Maintenance Council meetings in Nashville, Tenn.

Telematics allows carriers to monitor driver behaviour and address troubling patterns early. Scott Webb, an executive with Mesilla Valley Transportation, attributes 50% of the fuel savings his company has achieved in recent years to adjustments in driver behaviour. “About half of our fuel efficiency comes from technological improvements and half from how drivers drive the truck,” Webb said.

Mesilla Valley began training drivers on fuel-efficient driving techniques in 1981, when the fleet-wide fuel economy averaged just 4 mpg (in February 2014, it averaged 8.5 mpg).

Taking it online

Trucking companies today are making greater use of online training opportunities, which allow them to regularly connect with a mobile workforce. No longer is training restricted to the US Thanksgiving weekend, when most drivers can be brought in off the road with minimal disruption to operations. Murrell says online training in the trucking industry is “an idea whose time has come.”

Online training allows drivers to learn at their own pace, and on their own schedule.

“The classroom is good for certain things, but the disadvantage of the classroom is that you’re stuck with pacing that meets the requirements of the lowest common denominator or the bulk of the audience,” Murrell said. Drivers who learn more quickly – or slowly – than others aren’t well served by a classroom approach, he added.

Off-the-shelf online training programs are available on a wide range of topics, ranging from trip inspections, hours-of-service, drugs/alcohol and even health and wellness. Murrell said he’s noticing more leading carriers expanding their training beyond regulatory and compliance topics and into the realm of the softer skills, such as business development and driver wellness.

“The broader professional development-type skills haven’t had a lot of support in the past (in trucking),” he said.

Beyond the driver’s seat

Successful carriers provide training that extends well beyond driving, especially if they transport dangerous goods or other specialty commodities. Marcel Pouliot, vice-president of safety and industrial services with Trimac, says driving comprises just one element of a comprehensive training program.

At Trimac, drivers are also required to become product-handling experts. They’re given Product Stewardship Manuals specific to the commodity they’re hauling and are trained on the proper use of each type of equipment they’ll encounter on the job.

At Trimac, even a driver who has been fully trained does not escape ongoing scrutiny. Trimac’s drivers are required to undergo a Job Task Observation – during which they’re observed on the job by a member of Trimac’s safety department – at least once a year. Pouliot said the company conducted 3,482 such JTOs across its team of 1,150 drivers in 2013.

Troy Stimpson, director of safety and compliance with TimeLine Logistic International, a Saskatoon, Sask.-based carrier that serves the nuclear and oil and gas industries, rhymes off a laundry list of topics the company provides training on, beyond driving. This includes: Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS); cargo securement; practical vehicle inspections; defensive driving; hours-of-service; and even wellness topics such as healthy eating and getting enough sleep.

Most of the training provided by TimeLine is not required by law, but Stimpson said there’s a definite benefit to the bottom line. He said safety-conscious oil and gas companies have turned to TimeLine because they know the company employs a comprehensive health and safety program and that its drivers are well trained. But he said the same rules should apply to every trucking company, regardless of what’s in the wagon.

“Defensive driving is defensive driving, whether you’re hauling a load of diapers or a load of uranium,” he said.

Stimpson acknowledged some drivers feel it’s too much. “A lot of the new guys really like it,” he said. “But some of the old-timers figure they’ve been there, done that and they don’t feel we can teach them anything new. We have to find amicable solutions. The easiest thing I find is to sit down with the driver and go through it with them. There isn’t one hat that fits everybody.”

When training drivers on so many different topics, Stimpson warned against trying to cover everything in a short time period. “They retain more information if you spread things out,” he said.

Training new Canadians

Demand for professional drivers in Saskatchewan has outpaced the supply, leading many carriers to look abroad when developing a pipeline of new hires. Denis Prud’homme is CEO of Prudhomme International, a recruiting company that specializes in bringing qualified drivers from overseas to fill trucking jobs in Saskatchewan and Alberta. He says training requirements in most parts of the world from which he recruits are actually more stringent than in Canada.

Still, a professional driver who’s new to Canada will require some additional training to ensure a smooth transition.

“The biggest challenge is the regulations,” Prud’homme said. Drivers from overseas must learn a new set of hours-of-service and border crossing regulations as well as basic rules of the road. “What the larger companies will do, is take up to four to six weeks to re-train these guys properly,” Prud’homme said.

Prudhomme International recommends 40 hours of in-cab training before a foreign driver is sent to obtain their Saskatchewan Class 1 licence. Training on language, regulations and rules of the road will also be required to ensure a driver from overseas can make the adjustment.


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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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