If you bring up the challenges of carriers today with any fleet manager, the topic of driver shortage is almost certain to come up.
What's troubling is that we are only seeing the beginnings of it - the clouds are looming large on the horizon.

When we asked our 2011 Truck Fleet Innovators for their take on the shortage, both Chad England, chief operating officer of C.R. England, and Vin McLoughlin, chairman of Cardinal Logistics, referred us to the recruitment and retention experts within their organizations.

"Right now it is the calm before the storm," said Tom Pronk, vice president of recruiting, training and safety at C.R. England. "It is going to get a lot tighter and a lot harder as things start to improve."

But the questions remains: What to do? How can carriers steel themselves? There is no single answer, and there are many facets to the problem.

There are some general strategies to keep in mind - number one is getting the drivers there in the first place.

A different approach to driving school

"We rely on our schools as a mechanism for getting drivers in," said Pronk.

C.R. England operates four schools throughout the country, and although there is significant cost to that, there are very real benefits. Foremost is that as a company school, C.R. England's training centers are not operated on a for-profit basis, which means they offer rates significantly lower than schools-as-a-business, according to Pronk.

There are other companies that offer driving school for free, but that means you're agreeing to a job there. At C.R. England, the prospective driver gets a job lined up for him at the end of the course, as well as the freedom to go somewhere else if he chooses.

In addition, C.R. England's Salt Lake City headquarters has what Pronk describes as a "mini-city," with stores, an exercise facility and even a barbershop. The company recently launched a Driver Services Department whose only concern is driver issues and complaints. According to Pronk, that ensures problems get addressed immediately.

That's all well and good, but there are a lot of potential employees out there. Where do you find the good ones?

Hit the pavement

According to Lance Merklein, vice president of risk management at Cardinal Logistics, you have to know where to look.

"A driver worth his salt is not going to be looking in the classified ads," Merklein said.

Cardinal has taken an entirely different approach to driver recruitment. Instead of placing ads in trade magazines and newspapers, he has his recruiters hit the pavement. Their duties include getting out into communities attending local events in search of potential drivers.

This way, the company can go directly to people that hold promise - and a real community presence means drivers know exactly where to look for a job.

The lifestyle problem

While this is good food for thought in the short term, the driver shortage could become large enough to cause industry-wide changes in recruiting practices, and perhaps even in the ways that carriers do business. Although there has been an ongoing grab for the best talent out there, C.R. England's Pronk thinks the focus has to change.

"[Those guys] that have been doing it for a little while and they aren't sure if this is the place they want to be… we need to keep that group," Pronk said.

Pronk thinks that as the economy improves, a lot of those people will consider jobs in similar sectors, such as manufacturing, that have softer benefits like home time. In fact, some workers may be willing to take a pay cut if it means being at home every night.

"I want to work, I want to have a good income, but I also want to do A-B-C in my life as well," said Pronk, characterizing the youngest generation of truckers.

Creating the type of trucking job that caters to that mindset is an enormous challenge, and one that the industry will inevitably face. Merklein, who agrees with Pronk, thinks it will take fundamental change in the way carriers operate.

"The supply chain will have to be rethought based on how we recruit drivers," Merklein said. "A lot of people just don't want to sign up for the lifestyle."

Dealing with pushback

There's more than enough room on the technology bandwagon, but as always, some people just refuse to get on. For a carrier pushing toward the future, it can be a significant obstacle to reaching full speed. There are two ways of dealing with this (somewhat generational) problem.

The first is plain old patience.

"The younger guys are more technology oriented," said Prime Inc.'s Don Lacy, talking about EOBRs. "And the older guys… at first they are a little skeptical, but once they get used to it, they like it better."

According to Lacy and many others, it is mostly older drivers who balk at the new technology because it's unfamiliar. The trick is getting them to realize how much easier it makes their job. Again, in the case of electronic logs, the driver essentially never has to think about hours ever again. You get in, get out, and the computer does all the number crunching. Steve Rush of Carbon Express said sometimes drivers just need a nudge.

"Once it is in there, wham!" said Rush. "They absolutely embrace it."

Rush claims to have gotten almost zero pushback on EOBRs, but he added a caveat: If a driver really digs his heels in against them, perhaps it's time to reconsider him as an employee.

Another thing to do is make sure drivers are trained adequately on new systems, whether they're reluctant or not. This can be particularly relevant if you're implementing an entirely new process, like delivery confirmation, because it may include a new duty as well as a new tool. If a driver is stumbling over an electronic form in the field, that can cost you money. However, technology can help here, too.

"We can essentially deliver training over the Qualcomm computer in the truck," said Lacy. "We've got training [videos] that can be downloaded off the site, if people want to re-familiarize themselves."

Finally, carriers might encounter a more basic modern terror: Fear of Big Brother. More than a few drivers out there are wary of things like critical event recorders, or instant back-office alerts when the brakes are stabbed. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do assuage the driver beyond simply telling him the truth.

"We are not here to be the Big-Guy-in-the-Sky," said Rush, mimicking a conversation with an employee. "We are here to help you become a better driver and a safer driver."

From the September 2011 issue of HDT.