Trucking has struggled to recruit enough drivers for over a decade. As the economy roared back from the pandemic shutdown, the shortage became more acute than ever.
Even though the economy has softened somewhat this year, the American Trucking Associations’ latest estimates show the trucking industry is short roughly 78,000 drivers, ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello told attendees of the association’s Management Conference and Exhibition this fall. “That’s down slightly from 2021’s record of more than 81,000 — but still extremely high historically.” (Those 2021 numbers also were revised upward slightly.)
It’s tempting for motor carriers and private fleets to cut corners in this tight labor market, said Tim Crawford, co-founder and president of Tenstreet, a company providing software solutions for the transportation industry, during an HDT Leadership Insights video podcast.
He explains, “It’s hard for carriers to be selective.”
Carriers often find drivers who meet hiring criteria but are not ideal candidates. Yet they hire them anyway.
“It’s really difficult to say, ‘No, we’re going to wait for the next one,’” he says. “No one likes to see orientation sessions with available seats. No one likes to see trucks on the fence. And the pressure on carriers to keep assets moving and generating revenue is intense.”
Why You Should Wait for the Right Drivers
But though carriers are in a tough position, Crawford recommends boosting hiring and recruiting practices, then waiting for the right candidates to come along.
“It’s a real balancing act,” he said. “There’s the pressure of getting trucks off the fence, while making sure everything is buttoned up and compliant from a regulatory perspective, and from an insurance perspective, protects your liability down the road.”
Nuclear verdicts after an accident now surpass $10 million. In August 2021, a jury assessed a fleet $1 billion in wrongful death damages after an accident. These verdicts drive up insurance costs. If accidents become a pattern, it also can make insurance impossible to get.
These verdicts shine a spotlight on the importance of hiring qualified drivers from the onset. Plaintiffs try to prove motor carriers acted recklessly and hired unqualified drivers in these cases. Defendants must prove they hired the most qualified drivers they could and kept them trained after hiring.
Pandemic Shifts Tighten Driver Labor Pool
The pandemic altered driver job-seeking behavior, fleets must respond in kind, Crawford affirms.
COVID-19 pressures pushed many drivers out of the business. The industry saw a massive drop in drivers during pandemic shutdowns, and “it’s been a sort of slow slog back to pre-pandemic levels,” he says. “Drivers are still hard to find. But there are more drivers looking for work today than before the pandemic.”
Trucking also was not immune to the Great Resignation or the Big Quit, the ongoing trend of Americans voluntarily leaving their jobs since spring of 2021. Crawford says some drivers stepped out of the market for a while. Others stayed with their current carriers, and many exited the industry altogether.
All this adds up to a “really tight driver market,” he concludes.
The pandemic also changed when applicants apply, he adds. In the past, drivers moved according to a pretty predictable pattern. For example, drivers looked to make a move in January, but slowed their job searches by February. “All the seasonality rules have shifted,” he says. “While there are more drivers considering a move today, it’s not in the same cadence as in the past.”
Applications coming in on Mondays also have grown. “Mondays have always been really busy,” Crawford says. “Drivers coming off a frustrating weekend often apply to find a better job. What’s interesting is a higher percentage of drivers who apply on Monday get hired, than drivers who apply on other days of the week. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher.”
Though not tied to the pandemic per se, Crawford notes on average, “drivers dip their toe into the waters of the job market twice a year. That’s been pretty constant.”
These changes affect recruiting, which Crawford says must be “more of a journey than a destination and constantly evolve as technology changes, drivers change, the market changes and the demand for drivers changes.”
“There are so many variables to their job searches,” Crawford says. “Rate packages and benefits packages are constantly shifting. Most drivers are testing the waters to see the possibilities.”
He adds, “No driver really wants to shift jobs. Even in the best of circumstances, they will lose several days to a week’s worth of pay. Drivers don’t move jobs at the drop of a hat. There has to be a really compelling reason.”
Competing for Truck Drivers in a Tight Market
Fierce competition for drivers prevails in the tightened applicant market. Carriers must do everything they can to reach drivers faster and attract them to their open positions. Crawford gives several tips to attract and hire drivers before the competition can.
1. Get speed on your side.
The faster a carrier connects with a driver, the better the odds of converting that driver from applicant to active driver. “I don’t mean hours, either. I mean minutes,” Crawford stresses. “If a carrier connects with a driver within five minutes of them submitting their application, they’re twice as likely to hire the driver.” Fleets also report a growing number of applications arrive over the weekend. In fact, Crawford says it’s increased about 30% since the pandemic. He said nights and weekends do not require a 5-minute response times. But he advises reaching out to weekend applicants as soon as the workweek begins.
2. Accelerate the hiring cycle.
Days matter. Carriers with hiring cycles of 5-7 days will get drivers more often than those on a 15-20 cycle, he stresses.
3. Drop the sales pitch.
Drivers do not want to feel like a targeted demographic.
4. Make it personal.
“The carriers that make personal, individual connections with drivers will have more hiring success,” he says. “Listen to what drivers want and get to know them as individuals.”
5. Messages matter.
Make sure recruiting messages hit on things that attract driver interest. Stress more home time, pay by the mile or other benefits. Plain emails with personalization perform better than slick marketing messages that appear mass produced. “An individualized message has more chance of getting read and driving a response,” he says. “People like to be interacted with and treated as individuals.”
The driver shortage has every fleet competing for the same applicants. But even in that market, fleets must aim to hire long-term employees versus drivers to fill seats. Offering more money per hour or per mile than fleets down the street may attract drivers. But a solid hiring and recruiting strategy that meets drivers where they are at will help fleets hire long-term employees that remain loyal for the long haul.