About 40% of drivers make a decision in their first 72 hours whether they're going to be a short timer or stay with a company a long time, according to one speaker at a recruiting and retention conference this week in Nashville.

Taking a close look at your orientation processes could be a big step in making sure newly recruited drivers and owner-operators stay beyond a few weeks or months.

The 2012 Recruitment & Retention Conference, put on by the Truckload Carriers Association and ACS, covered topics such as social networking, awards and recognition, hiring veterans and driver development and recruitment strategies.

A key theme in more than one session was first impressions. Of course the recruiter, via phone and e-mail, makes some of those first impressions, but the driver's first in-person experience with a company is often the orientation or onboarding process.

That 40% number came from Rim Yurkus, president and CEO of Strategic Programs Inc., which has done a great deal of research on why drivers leave companies. He recommended fleets take a step back and scrutinize the orientation process.

"Put it in slow motion and zoom in and be an architect of that onboarding experience," he said. After drivers have been there 30 days, he said, ask them what they remember most about the orientation. What did they see when they first walked into the building? What do they remember about the people they met?

If at all possible, he recommended, reach out to that driver with a personal touch before they even get to orientation. Send them a warm letter, maybe with a cap with a company logo, letting them know you're looking forward to seeing them. If at all possible, he said, have the driver's new fleet manager call ahead of time and introduce himself.

During the orientation, Yurkus said, have the owner, president or upper management meet with the group. "No company is too big to have top management stop by in person," he said, or at least by video conference. "If the president spends 10 or 15 minutes addressing new recruits and telling them something of the history, the folklore of the company, that will help the driver feel like he's part of something larger than himself."

At Paramount Freight Systems, an all-owner-operator company with about 200 trucks, orientation includes a process where the drivers meet everybody within the organiziaotn and spend time understanding everyone's role before they ever leave with the first load, said Director Trent Dye. "We're putting a face with the organization." In addition, drivers have lunch with their assigned fleet managers during orientation, so they can get to know each other.

In a session focusing on owner-operator recruiting and retention, Jeff Holsinger, director of recruiting, Fleetwood Transportation Services, Diboll, Texas, told attendees he's seen too many orientations where, "The person arrives, you greet them, do the drug test, and for the next two or three days you tell them, 'If you do this, you will get fired. And if you don't do this, you will get fired.' What message are you sending them? They're already looking for their next job."

Instead, Holsinger said, couch things in positive terms aimed at ensuring the new driver's success. Instead of saying, "If you don't fill out your logs, you will get fired," for instance, couch it like, "At our company, we require you to fill your logs out this way so you will be successful and not get fined by DOT.

"How about, 'We've got people who've been here for 20 years, and here's how you can be successful, too.'"

More carriers are shortening the in-person orientation process, as well, whether it's by having drivers view safety videos and the like beforehand, or getting drug testing out of the way before the driver ever sets foot in the terminal.