Fleets spend a lot of time trying to attract new truck drivers - but it may be even more...

Fleets spend a lot of time trying to attract new truck drivers - but it may be even more important to pay attention to why they walk out the door.

'I always hear that a driver will walk across the street for 2 cents more a mile, but that's not what we've found," says Rim Yurkus, CEO and co-founder of Strategic Programs Inc., a turnover consulting firm in Denver.

When drivers leave your company, it is most likely not because another company has enticed them out from under your nose. Instead, something triggers them to leave. And it's not always the big things. Instead, it's likely to be a succession of small things, until one day a driver has simply had enough.

"These people keep score," Yurkus says. "It's like an old-fashioned scale, where bad days pile up on one side, good days on the other. At some point, the number of bad days gets high enough to tip the scale."

Strategic Programs' exit interview process is designed to get past the superficial or easy answers drivers give for leaving. "If you have a casual or not-well-thought-out (exit interview) process, you can ask why and he may tell you because the new company paid 2 cents more per mile," Yurkus explains. "That many not be a lie, but it's rarely the whole truth.

"If you turn back the camera a month or two, something else happened - maybe a driver manager broke his promise about getting him home for his kid's birthday, and while he was nursing that negative attitude, he started looking around for other reasons to quit."

The following list of reasons drivers leave is based loosely on Strategic Programs' database of 22,000 truck driver interviews.

1. I don't make enough money.

As you probably would expect, money issues, including rates and getting enough miles, are the top reason drivers leave. Complaints about not getting enough miles have risen in the past year as the economy and freight have softened.

"It's important we offer competitive rates in a tight industry," says Rob Newell, vice president of recruiting and retention for Greatwide Logistics. "We've got to remain competitive to attract labor from other markets and attract people into the profession."

Schneider National, for instance, last fall announced what it says is one of the largest driver pay increases in the company's history, with the potential for drivers to earn up to $4,500 more per year.

There are also ways to address the compensation issue other than the per-mile rate. At Greatwide Logistics, for instance, they've been testing a technology solution they're calling GreatMatch. This system makes recommendations to the company's owner-operators on optimizing their income based on hours of service regulations and historical information on various types of loads.

But you might be surprised to learn that the majority of drivers actually leave for non-money-related issues.

"Even when money is the biggest reason, it rarely accounts for more than 20 percent of the people who left," Yurkus says. Issues such as time at home and the relationship the driver has with his supervisor loom large.

"I think pay tends to be the easy answer," says Jim DePillo, 20-year trucking veteran and co-author with Stan Poduch of the book "True Stories of Driver Turnover: Translating the Driver's Perspective."

"The truth is, if there's a pattern of people not responding well to him within the organization, eventually the frustration's going to build and lead to him deciding to leave," DePillo says.

2.  I'm not satisfied with my home time.

This one won't surprise anyone, but it is a more complex issue than simply "not enough home time." Strategic Programs found that some drivers complained that time at home was too infrequent, but others focused on the unpredictability of time at home - or that when they did get home, they didn't get to stay long enough.

Part of satisfying drivers in this area starts in the recruiting process. "If they live in Montana, and your lanes are between Detroit and Laredo, it's not going to happen," said then-president and COO of Celadon, Tom Glaser, during a recruiting and retention conference last year. "Pay attention to your hiring area and where you drive your trucks up and down the road. Hiring area and freight density play an important part in getting those drivers home."

The unpredictability of home time is the main reason drivers leave Maverick, says Darius Cooper, vice president of operations. "While we try to get every driver home for a minimum of 34 hours each weekend, it is still unpredictable. In 2006, 97 percent of our drivers were home every weekend, but in 2007 we have only been able to maintain a 95 percent home average." In many cases, he notes, being home on a more consistent basis is much more important to the family than having a $50,000 per year income.

That's the thinking behind an unusual program at Schneider called Home Run. A group of three drivers are assigned to two trucks. Each driver works two weeks on, one week off. They'll be home 17 weeks out of the year, and know which weeks those are going to be. Schneider also is expanding a program that allows drivers to schedule their home time in advance using an online calendar. Other changes in Schneider's dispatch system mean nearly two-thirds of the company's drivers get home daily or weekly.

3. I don't like my supervisor.

'People don't leave companies; people leave people," says Greatwide's Newell. For drivers, the supervisor is their dispatcher or fleet manager, their primary point of contact with the company. By the very nature of the job, this relationship is fraught with potential for problems.

"When you look at the behavioral profile of a driver and a driver manager, they're opposed," explained Tom Witt, then-senior vice president of operations at Smithway Motor Xpress, during a recruiting and retention conference last year. "Driver managers are extroverted, work in a fast-paced environment, and work well without structure or guidance. Drivers are very patient. They spend a lot of time in the truck by themselves, they don't receive criticism well, and they need a lot of structure in their environment. What seems to be the disconnect is the way the message is delivered from the driver manager to the driver. The driver's not going to receive very well a dictatorial directive without explanation as to why."

Of course, there are many different personalities both behind the wheel and in the dispatch department. A driver who has friction with one dispatcher might get along great with a different one. There are companies that offer employee profiling services to help better match drivers to dispatchers. But all dispatchers/fleet managers need to have the right knowledge, tools and attitude to deal with drivers.

"Beyond issues like pay and home time, it's all about relationships," Newell says. That's why Greatwide is developing what it calls a Driver Relationship Management Initiative, focused on training fleet managers (what Greatwide is calling driver support leaders). They also are developing technology that will make the dispatching chores less time-intensive and give the driver managers more time to interact with the drivers.

"It's about knowing them by name - they're not a truck and a trailer, they're a person," Newell says. "They're a father, a mother, a brother, a son, and we need to get to know them. We need to congratulate them on a company achievement or if their son won the Little League championship game. That's what relationships are all about." The training encompasses topics such as interpersonal relationships, conflict resolution, anger management and learning about what the driver faces in his daily life out on the road.

Joplin, Mo.-based CFI uses fleet manager evaluations, where drivers are asked to evaluate their supervisors and offer suggestion for improvement. "It helps the fleet manager see things from the drivers' perspective, and perhaps alter how they approach implementation of new concepts," says President and CEO Herb Schmidt.

One common complaint Strategic Programs hears from drivers is that their driver manager does not value their ideas and suggestions. Drivers want to feel like part of the company, and having their ideas taken seriously by their dispatcher can go a long way toward that feeling.

While drivers may cite conflicts with their supervisor as a prime reason for leaving, don't forget the importance of other people the driver comes in contact with, as well, DePillo says - payroll, safety and compliance, mechanics and so forth. "There are a variety of interaction points within an organization, and every conversation that anyone has is an opportunity to retain or to lose the driver," he says.

4. I'm not happy with the way I'm dispatched.

Beyond the relationship with the dispatcher, there are many opportunities for dissatisfaction with the dispatching and scheduling itself.

One common complaint is unpaid wait time at the customer. "If the sales department doesn't get involved with the customers to get the truck unloaded faster, that's a problem," says Glaser. "The salespeople have to be involved with this process."

At Dart, says Joyce Jordan, COO of the Dallas Operating Center, "We are able to look at the average loading and unloading time by shipper and consignee, and have made a concerted effort to have our salespeople talk to the customers and consignees individually to try to resolve the problem. If a driver is delayed, we will pay him or her for waiting time after a certain limit."

Other complaints include being stranded far from home without a load, bad directions on how to get to a shipper or consignee, bad information on where to pick up a trailer, having to drive in New York City, and so forth. Some of these issues can be addressed with computer technology that helps dispatch drivers more effectively and can provide turn-by-turn directions right in the cab.

5. I was set up for failure.

This means there are conditions that come with the job, hours of service and other regulations, and company policies that make it impossible for the driver to succeed - drivers feel it's a no-win situation.

A smart company tries to set drivers up for success, rather than failure. At Greatwide Logistics, for example, which is a primarily owner-operator company, they try to offer their contractors help in running their business, from discounts on things such as fuel and tires and auxiliary power units, to business-consulting services.

"A lot of times, I think drivers don't have an understanding of how to make use of the money that they do make," DePillo says. "I think that's part of the support that a good trucking company can provide, is explaining to a driver how they can be more efficient in how they run so they can maximize their paycheck. Companies offer different pay packages, but drivers probably could find a way to increase their pay with their existing company without having to move, if they understood a little more in terms of how they can maximize their opportunities."

One of the interesting things Strategic Programs has found is that for owner-operators using fleet lease-purchase programs, the older the equipment, the happier the people are, rather than the other way around. Yurkus believes that's because the payments are lower, so there's less pressure. Someone on a lease-purchase program with a high payment may feel they've been set up for failure.

"When someone signs up for these kinds of programs, the people who run these programs need to do more of, 'Are you sure you want this tractor, because the difference in your payment will be $600 a week and that means less home time.' "

6. This isn't what I expected.

The recruiting and orientation process, as well as the first two to three months on the job, can quickly push a driver back out the door. Driver complaints that life as a driver was not what they expected, or that their recruiter lied to them, are common.

Trucking recruiters, as a group, have an unfortunate reputation for luring drivers with unrealistic claims. One of the best thing companies can do is make sure the recruiting process isn't setting up expectations that can't be met.

"One of the biggest problems drivers have in the industry is that they don't trust any of us," says Celadon's Glaser. His company has found that the recruiter sitting down with each driver and going through a simple written checklist of the company's expectations helps drivers understand what they're getting involved with.

Dart Transit does much the same thing during its new contractor orientation, Jordan says. "The last thing that happens is, he meets with his contractor fleet manager and we go through an expectation exchange - a formal document the fleet manager refers to. We try to make it conversational, and we cover what their expectations are. If a driver says the recruiter told him he can expect 3,500 miles a week, then we invite the recruiter to come into that exchange and deal with it right then."

At Maverick, when a driver arrives for orientation, the instructors go over the job, pay and requirements in detail, says Brad Vaughn, recruiting manager. "If the driver feels that is not what he/she was told by recruiting, then the recruiting manager and the recruiter will sit down with the driver to discuss the miscommunication and make sure the driver fully understands every detail. Sitting down and making sure the driver has a complete understanding of the job prior to moving forward solves many problems on the front end before they develop into larger issues."

Pay close attention to the first 60 to 90 days. Craig Transport, for instance, uses a mentor program, where someone follows up with the driver in a week and in a month to see how he is doing.

"Some smart companies we know of have a process of checking in with the driver after 30 or 45 days to see how things are going, what they like about the job, and what they feel would be an obstacle to them succeeding in the long term in that position," Yurkus says. "That's had a significant impact on early turnover."

7.  I have problems with equipment or maintenance.

You see a lot about spec'ing tractors to attract drivers, but the condition and maintenance of the equipment - both tractors and trailers - can push drivers out the door.

Maintenance procedures are a potential problem area. "Some companies plan the maintenance rather efficiently, where the driver could use the time for personal time while the truck is being fixed," Yurkus explains. "At other companies, the driver's waiting around half a day for their truck to be fixed" - and likely spending that time thinking about all the other irritating things about his job.

You also need to consider how the driver and the technician relate to each other. Drivers who report problems during their pre-trip inspection and then find they weren't fixed before heading out on the road are going to get the message that the company doesn't care about their comfort or safety.

There has always been an adversarial relationship between drivers and mechanics. Technicians think drivers tear up the truck, and drivers say mechanics never get it fixed right. While procedures need to be in place to prevent drivers from wasting technicians' time, at the same time, technicians need to appreciate the importance that seemingly minor problems can have for drivers.

They need to understand that the truck is essentially the driver's home. If you have a squeak in your car and you only drive it an hour a day, it's not a big deal. But if you live in that vehicle, it's different. Educate both drivers and technicians about each other's job, whether it's in a formal training program or one on one.

8. There are no opportunities for me to advance.

This doesn't necessarily mean being promoted out of the truck into dispatch. For some drivers that may be an opportunity they're looking for, but for others, they prefer being behind the wheel than behind a desk.

But you need to have some way of rewarding drivers who stay with the company, some form of seniority. Maybe that's more pay for more years on board. Maybe drivers who have been with the company longer get to drive better equipment. Maybe it's the opportunity to transfer into a different division of the company that offers dedicated or regional runs or some other type of more-appealing loads and routes. Even if they don't take advantage of it, it gives them the feeling that the future holds something better, that they have career options.

"That's critical for retention," Yurkus says. If there are rewards for seniority, "someone who's having a bad day will think twice about having to start over with a new company."

9. The company doesn't communicate with me.

Communication with the driver should not be limited to his relationship with his dispatcher. If a driver feels like a mushroom - kept in the dark and fed manure - he's going to be more likely to leave.

"Drivers want to know why they're getting a streak of bad loads, or are not getting enough miles, or what the future of the company is going to be," Yurkus explains. "When they see new drivers being hired when they feel there aren't enough loads for existing drivers, they want management to tell them what the plan is."

This could be as simple as an article from the president in the company newsletter, explaining why the market is soft right now and what economists are saying about prospects for the next quarter. "It makes drivers feel like they're on the inside, that they've got a common problem and a mutual goal," Yurkus says. "If drivers don't have enough communication, they will fill in the blanks - they will assign negative motives to what they don't have information on."

Of course, communication with the company goes both ways. At CFI, says Schmidt, whenever the company considers making changes that could affect drivers, management seeks input from drivers - and in most cases bases the final decision around that input.

For instance, each month CFI holds a driver forum, in which 12 to 15 drivers are randomly selected to participate in a discussion led by Schmidt. Drivers are asked about various issues or concepts being considered. If there is a particular issue drivers are passionate about, three or four forums may be held on that topic.

CFI also has a 24-hour suggestion line for drivers and other employees to weigh in on items being discussed in Joplin while they are on the road - and the company has a commitment to providing responses to their questions within 24 hours.

"Through these simple processes, drivers know that the company cares about them and that their opinions matter," Schmidt says. CFI's turnover consistently runs 30 percent below the American Trucking Associations' published average.

10. I'm not appreciated.

Driver appreciation efforts need to go beyond the usual Driver of the Month or Driver Appreciation Week activities - it needs to be part of the culture of the company.

"Drivers want to be a part of something," says Greatwide's Newell. "They want to feel like they matter, that their opinion matters, that their feedback somehow has an effect on making things better in the company they work for."

One surprising thing Strategic Programs found was that drivers crave positive feedback from customers. "One thing we have seen is these people tend to respond very well to positive reinforcement," Yurkus says. "They get a lot of criticism; they get a lot of feedback when they do something wrong. I walk into offices and see lobbies full of awards for customers, but drivers say, 'I never get any feedback on customer satisfaction.' "

"That's one of the issues that really surprised us at Smithway," says Witt. "We do exit surveys, and that was a key issue that came up - these guys wanted to hear how they were performing for our customers. When you think about it, they usually just hear the negative stuff - when they didn't deliver on time, or damaged a load."

So Smithway started publishing positive customer feedback on drivers in its newsletter, and turning those letters into glossy pieces of literature and posting them on bulletin boards at operating center. As a result, driver scores on their surveys improved on that aspect.

"There are all sorts of different ways where companies can convey to a driver the message that he's appreciated and understood - or that he's not," Yurkus says. "A driver who doesn't feel appreciated or understood will have a bad attitude, and it's very easy for him to look around and build up a whole package of reasons why it's not a good job."

Related: Driver Pay - Making the Grade

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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