Private fleets share tips on how to recruit and retain drivers

by James Menzies

KING CITY, Ont. — Success is difficult to measure and that’s especially true when it comes to driver retention in an industry as diverse as trucking. While one private fleet, Praxair, may look to its roster of 30-year employees as a sign the company is doing things right, another such as Patene Building Supplies may consider it an accomplishment when a driver stays on for five years.

“If we get an employee for five years, that’s a bonus for us,” Shari Lagala, health, safety and training manager for Patene, said candidly when speaking on a driver recruitment and retention panel at the recent Private Motor Truck Council of Canada annual conference. “We beat them up. Our guys are hauling drywall into basements, up stairs. It’s not a lifetime commitment for our drivers. Injuries can be high. It’s finding those employees that will fit and understand the type of work it is. They don’t get into trucks and drive, they get into trucks and handbomb once they get to the site.”

Fleet representatives speaking at the PMTC conference agreed an effective driver retention program begins with recruitment. Hiring drivers who are the right fit for the realities of that specific job and being up-front with them early about what the job entails will minimize the likelihood of unpleasant surprises.

For a company that has seasonal peaks and valleys, like Patene, that means telling new hires their earning potential will fluctuate throughout the year.

“Promote the job as it is,” Lagala advised. “Be candid and provide as much information as you can. Give them a clear view.”

John Harrison, general manager with Huron Services Group, agreed with the importance of telling new hires up-front what they’re in for.

“We don’t talk about the best-case scenario,” he said. “Here’s what our drivers typically make. Here’s what your T4 is going to read. We lay it on the line for them. Income decisions should be based on fleet averages. It’s really important to be realistic about what they’re going to experience and that they know the downside.”

Praxair has implemented a thorough pre-employment screening process with the goal of reducing turnover and ensuring its safety record is maintained.

“There are certain types of characteristics that are the ideal make-up of what we’re looking for in a candidate, and we stick to our guns,” said Jim Dimech, associate director of transportation with Praxair Canada. “We spend a great deal of time understanding the ideal make-up of that driver. Once you get that right driver, the chances of keeping that driver are increased significantly.”

Dimech said Praxair has a three-pronged approach to limiting turnover, which revolves around: recruitment; engagement; and respect. It seems to be working, with the company enjoying a turnover rate of less than 2% over the past couple years and hanging on to many 30-year-plus driving veterans.

Most of Praxair’s recruitment occurs by word of mouth. The Human Resources department screens applicants to ensure they have the skills required for the job before they’re passed along to the Transport Department for further evaluation.

From there, terminal managers and supervisors get involved in the interview process.

Safety is emphasized all along and drivers will only be considered if it’s clear safety pervades his or her attitude and translates into their driving behaviour, Dimech explained.

A new hire is put through an extensive on-boarding process. They’re introduced to all the key people they need to know within the organization so if they have a question, they know where to go to get it answered. This includes logistics planners, dispatch, payroll, etc.

“Leaving a driver on an island is the worst thing you can do,” Dimech explained. “Make sure they’re engaged right from the beginning to ensure they know who the right people (to go to) are.”

The company has been modifying its work schedules for drivers to provide a better work-life balance. Many of them now work four days on/four days off. Reset periods of 72-96 hours are usually given between driving stints.

It’s also important to treat drivers with respect, Dimech added. At Praxair, processes exist so that drivers can have their ideas heard.

“Treat drivers as more than just a person holding the steering wheel,” he said. “Drivers have one of the hardest jobs at Praxair. They’re valued from top to bottom.”

Dimech said many drivers leave their company because they don’t feel respected. As a result, Praxair trains its managers and supervisors on leadership skills and focuses on team-building and coaching.

One of the greatest examples of this resulted from driver feedback that indicated they weren’t feeling respected by the logistics department and vice-versa.

“We set up a series of town hall meetings where we had the chance for drivers to talk about their issues with the logistics department and vice-versa,” Dimech recalled. “The output was great. We developed a Planner/Driver Engagement Code with working conditions for planners and drivers on how they engage with each other. What planners wanted and what drivers wanted was pretty much the same – they wanted to be respected, their ideas heard and when possible, followed up on.”

A new logistics system was implemented, which eliminated unproductive run-outs and achieved productivity gains. Almost immediately after the town hall meetings, relations between drivers and logistics managers improved, Dimech said.

“It was all just a matter of putting down simple rules on how we interact with each other,” he said, noting the company followed it up with a record-low year for preventable accidents.

“We’d be remiss to say this program wasn’t a contributing factor,” he said.

Dave MacDonald, president of Revolution Staffing, pointed out fleets should also pay close attention to who they’re putting in charge of recruiting. Too often, he said, the people who occupy these important positions aren’t the best suited for the responsibilities they entail.

“They’re often process-oriented,” he said. “You want someone who’s relationship-oriented, who wants to be engaged with people – not so given to process that they forget the relationship. You need somebody in recruiting that loves people.”

Most drivers, said MacDonald, want to work for people they trust and who treat them as equals. They want to work for companies that value their input and listen to them, and who solicit their feedback. And they want independence.

But at the end of the day, a simple thank-you can help too, added Lagala, who says she makes a point of thanking each employee when she hands them their pay stub.

“A simple thank you goes a long way and sometimes that’s all they’re looking for,” she said. “Happy people are productive people.”

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