It was clear at last week's Recruitment & Retention Conference, put on by the Truckload Carriers Association and ACS Advertising, that forward-thinking carriers are realizing that recruiting and retention in the new environment means treating drivers are more than steering-wheel holders.

The audience of more than 200 truck driver recruiting and retention professionals at the event in Nashville, Tenn., enjoyed sessions on topics such as recruiting in an electronic age, innovation in recruiting and retention, and in-depth workshops on topics such as recruiting and retaining owner-operators, how to recruit ex-military, and driver development and retention strategies for the first 90 days and beyond.

Throughout many of the sessions there was a message of "drivers are people, too."

Yes, compensation is one of the first things people ask about when looking for a job. Mark Murrell is president of CarriersEdge, which does the Best Fleets to Drive For program for TCA. He reported that company drivers working for carriers in the Best Fleets program averaged $53,673 annually, on an average of 111,851 miles, while owner-operators averaged revenue of $162,985 a year on 116,021 miles.

Interestingly, Murrell said, year-over-year those numbers are essentially flat. Part of that, he said, appears to be drivers jumping from company to company. Yet "Even though the income isn't going up dramatically, a higher level of satisfaction is happening at these fleets," he said - in other words, even if your pay is average but you've got a supportive company, people are sticking around.

In a session aimed at owner-operator fleets, David Pike, director, recruiting and contractor relations, Universal Truckload Services, presented the results of an informal driver survey of about 200 drivers. When asked what attributes they consider the most when selecting a company to drive for, 43% said compensation, and 18% said fair treatment and respect. But when asked about what influences them most to leave a company, lack of fair treatment edged out compensation issues, 44% to 43%.

In many cases it boils down to very simple things. Are drivers a name or a number? Are problems with paychecks addressed promptly and other questions answered, or do questions get a "not my job" attitude?

"These drivers have a name," said Pike. "Is the first thing out of a dispatcher's mouth, 'what's your truck number?' Guess what, that's a human being. Have your dispatchers address them as such. They have a name."

Respect starts with recruiters being honest about what to expect. "If you train your recruiters to be honest, drivers stay," Pike said. "Record and listen to your recruiters' phone calls. You'd be amazed at some of the things you will hear from your recruiters and from the drivers on the other end of the phone."

Communication Counts

Terry Chappell, safety and recruiting coordinator for Fikes Truck Line, was one of many who stressed the importance of communication - not only the what, but also the how.

"Retention starts with the very first call the recruiter gets from a driver," Chappell said, "but it's everybody's responsibility, right down to the operator who answers the telephone. Every conversation can make a difference."

Jeff Holsinger, director of recruiting at Fleetwood Transportation Services, Diebold, Texas, said there's one thing people say on the phone that makes his skin crawl: "It's not my job."

"It may not be their job, but their job is to get them to the right people," Holsinger said. "Outlaw that in your company. Anyone you hear saying that, discipline that. Because their job depends on having that driver or owner-operator."

Kevin Burch, president of Jet Express in Dayton, Ohio, related a recent tale of a driver, working for an owner-operator contracted to the company, who was complaining about a seat in the truck that was just killing him.

"The dispatcher said 'Listen, it's not your truck, you're just the driver.'" Burch quickly set that dispatcher straight. "I told the dispatcher, what if you had a chair that didn't fit your body, and you had to sit in it for 10 hours? You want that driver to be uncomfortable on the road? Think about it."

Holsinger asked the audience to think about whether everyone in their company is treating the owner-operator with respect, like the businessperson he is. "When drivers call you with a question, it's one more opportunity for you to shine, for you to be better than the last place they worked."

Communication goes both ways, too. Burch also related a recent conversation with a new recruit, who came to Jet Express from a very large, well-known carrier.

"I told him how we communicate and if you've got anything on your run that can be improved, let us know. And he said, 'Mr. Burch, that's why I'm here. I was there for almost a year and I had a couple of suggestions and I was told twice that it was none of my business they had people that it was their job to make those kind of decisions.'" Burch is looking forward to his suggestions.

The First Few Months

Communication is especially important during the first one to three months.

Fikes' Chappell makes a point to call each new recruit the Friday after their first full week on the road. "I want to make sure they haven't had any problems, and also make sure they've done things they need to do like turning in their logs. That's always a good time to have that conversation about anything, their family. This is the time to catch up and let them know how much they're wanted and we're glad that they're with us."

Chappell also emphasized that "if they have problems, it's not always going to be something you can take care of, but make sure they get to the right person and make sure it's taken care of one way or the other."

The issue resolution process is important, said Rim Yurkis, president and CEO for employment consulting firm Strategic Programs Inc. "So they know up front if they can walk into the president's office if they have a problem," Yurkis said. "What do they do if they don't like the answer they got from their fleet manager? What do they do if they're not happy with the condition of their tractor? Being dead-ended - if someone has an issue and they feel they're not being treated fairly, if someone says no and there's nowhere to go - that's a fast track for disengagement."

Trent Dye with Paramount Freight Systems, a multiple Best Fleet to Drive For honoree, says his company created a buddy program. Seasoned, veteran owner-operators for the company are paid extra to take a handful of new drivers under their wing for their first 60 days. This not only gives newbies a place to go with questions they might feel intimidated to ask their boss, but also gives them another point of contact with the company besides the dispatcher. There's a waiting list to be a buddy, and Dye said that's not just because of the extra pay, but also because it makes the veteran drivers feel their advanced skills and experience are valued. "It gives both the new driver and mentor a sense of belonging."

It's important for driver managers, dispatchers, whatever the fleet calls them, to have a one-on-one relationship with their drivers. "Every driver has a handicap, and we don't mean that in a bad way," says Jim Subler, president of Ohio-based Classic Carriers Inc., which has about 130 trucks and low turnover. "It's something that's very very important to him or her, and if you work with him on that he'll do a good job. It could be kids, it could be home time by a certain time every week, it could be certain geographic areas he wants to run (or doesn't want to), it could be religious commitments or the personal needs of family. Does your operations department know and understand these needs? Do they comply with them?"

As Chappell said, "The last thing you want to find out from a driver if they've had a pro