HDT’s 2023 Emerging Leaders encompass a variety of fleets and responsibilities. Private and for-hire. Large and small. Dry van, vocational, tanker. They’re focused on improving safety, cutting costs, improving efficiency, and retaining drivers.
This year’s HDT Emerging Leaders are:
- Matt Brennan, transportation manager, Kurtz Bros.
- Joe Briner, director of procurement and fleet operations, G&D Trucking and Hoffman Transportation
- Casey Driggers, executive vice president of safety, Custom Commodities Transport
- Joshua Moore, transportation/fleet safety manager, Vulcan Materials Company
- Caty Simandl, operations supervisor, Werner Enterprises - Dedicated
Focus on People
If there’s one thing that ties all five of these young leaders together, it’s their focus on people.
But again and again, in our interviews with our Emerging Leader honorees, they talked about teamwork, communication, and connections.
They identified recruiting and retaining drivers as a key challenge for today and tomorrow. However, all of them believed strongly that this could be addressed through better communication and connection, with better treatment and better training.
Forging New Relationships with Drivers
Brennan started his career in trucking as a driver, and he credits that experience with helping drive his success in engaging drivers as transportation manager at Kurtz Bros. in Independence, Ohio.
Getting out of the office to drive a truck himself at least once a month not only keeps his skills fresh, he says, but also reminds drivers that he knows what he’s talking about.
“It also shows to both my staff and my contractors that I'm willing to get out there and get my hands dirty.
“But the bigger thing is just open and honest communication. One of the things I really try and do is constantly communicate with my team, about our business, about our strategies, and why we’re doing the things we're doing. And I think that really helps to increase that buy-in.”
Driver turnover is extremely low at G&D Trucking and Hoffman Transportation in Channahon, Illinois, where Joe Briner is director of procurement and fleet operations.
Hoffman/G&D has very strict hiring standard. Drivers average more than 30 years behind the wheel and more than 3 million miles of safe driving.
“We don't hire people just because we need to hire a person,” says Briner. “We really make sure that is the right person — because just hiring a person just to hire somebody because you need them right now usually causes more problems in the downstream.”
In fact, during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic when everything was shut down, the company kept everyone on the payroll. So, when business came roaring back, the company still had its experienced drivers and didn’t miss a beat.
Treating Drivers Right
Briner believes the driver shortage is due to the way drivers are treated. “The driver shortage will continue if you don't make [the quality of life] more appealing,” he says.
“We have a lot of guys come to us and say, ‘Pay is important, but it’s not the most important thing,” he explains. “They say, ‘I got paid fine at my last job but I don't like the way I was treated.’”
One key to improving that treatment lies in educating customers, he says, about hours of service regulations and the consequences to drivers of excessive waiting to load or unload.
“That three hours, you may have just killed his entire week,” Briner says. “That three hours you make him sit there may mean he's not going to make it home the next day — or that night, he’s going to be sleeping in a truck stop instead of sleeping in his own bed.”
The Dangers of Windshield Time
Making that worse is the eight to 10 hours a day of windshield time, “where all you can do is think, and a little problems become bigger problems become bigger problems become bigger problems; I hope I can find a parking spot, I hope I can find a shower, I hope this customer can hold my load,” Briner says.
All those negative thoughts not only lead to driver turnover, but they’re also bad for drivers’ mental health, he says, and it also affects how safely a driver operates.
Simandl believes a key factor in driver turnover is a lack of relationship with the company and other people at the company. As operations supervisor in the dedicated network at Werner Enterprises, she says, “That's something that I focus on with my team, is building relationships with these drivers. I know that it's easy for them to up and move to another job. So what's going to make them want to stay?”
Drivers who feel a connection to their driver manager, to Werner as a company, to the community as a whole, are not as likely to leave, she says.
Like Briner, she believes mental health is becoming a more important issue and that it’s important to make sure drivers have mental health support.
“They're out long hours by themselves staring at a blank road, so I can understand how that can become difficult. I get stressed out, and I see people every day. Imagine being in a box by yourself doing that.
“What resources can we offer them?” she says. “What opportunities are there are to make sure that they're safe in mind and safe and heart” as well as physically safe?
“If you feel like someone cares about you as a person, you're going to have a deeper connection. And I think that's something that often is missing with drivers.”
Driggers also talks about the impact of that windshield time on drivers. As executive vice president of safety at Custom Commodities Transport in Gilmer, Texas, he says, “One of my goals is to let them know, ‘Hey, we are here, we are listening.’ They're out for months at a time, and they don't have anybody to talk to except their self. And, Lord, help me, I talked to myself before, sometimes it doesn't work out too well,” he says with a laugh.
Complicating the driver recruiting and retention issue are differences between generations.
“We’ve all heard of some of the struggles of finding younger drivers and keeping younger drivers engaged,” Brennan says, “and I've certainly gone through those struggles as well.”
Brennan is looking to bring new-driver training into the mix at Kurtz Bros. after finding a lot of success with it in the FedEx Ground contractor fleet he operated in his previous job.
“If you develop a driver, especially one that already works in our system, if you get them trained the way you want them, you get a lot more buy-in,” he says. “I've had a lot of success with younger drivers that we train from zero, more so than drivers that we bring in.
“I think fleets across the country have to get creative,” Brennan says. “Because the fact of the matter is, the pool of drivers that you can just kind of plug in with little training, that pool is going to shrink. And I think that's probably a lot of the struggles that we're all feeling with the younger drivers.
"I don't think it's a motivation problem; I think it's more of a training problem. I think you just need to invest more time and energy and getting them to where you need them to be.”
Training the new generation of drivers is also on the mind of Moore, who is transportation/fleet safety manager for Vulcan Materials Company in Birmingham, Alabama. He says he’s what’s known as a Geriatric Millennial, which positions him to be a bridge between digital natives and digital adapters.
“I can sort of see pre-Internet, post-Internet, pre-cellphone, post-cellphone, but we’re working with drivers 10 years younger than me who have never known anything different,” he says.
“But we also have a large core of drivers that have been doing this as long as I've been alive. And some of the ways that you go about training those folks, that doesn't work for younger people. They learn differently, and they're driven differently.
“So that's one thing on my mind, is how do we continue to craft our safety program to engage with those folks so they can make safe decisions?”
Click on the names below to read profiles of each Emerging Leader.
More About the 2023 HDT Emerging Leaders