Whenever there's a panel discussion about driver turnover and the coming driver shortage, low pay is always pointed to as a culprit. Yet when it comes to making drivers happy, pay often takes a backseat to the bigger picture.

That's what CarriersEdge has learned over the past few years as it worked to find the Truckload Carriers Association's “Best Fleets to Drive For” winners.

Driver pay does not seem to be as important a factor in drivers wanting to stick around as does what CarriersEdge calls the “total work environment.” That includes not only pay, but also benefits, work/life balance, professional development and more.

And for all of that, the impetus comes from the top.

“The number one thing that seems to make a difference is having an actively engaged executive team,” says Mark Murrell, president of CarriersEdge, of the fleets that are named “Best Fleets to Drive For.” “If the executive team isn't engaged, nothing is ever going to change.”

That doesn't mean just having a vague “open door policy,” either. Meet drivers during orientation, show up at their driver meetings, get to know as many as possible by name, and foster a corporate culture that respects drivers.

“Carriers used to have the attitude that they own the truck, take what we've got or leave it,” says Kevin Burch, a 2013 HDT Truck Fleet Innovator and president of Ohio-based Jet Express. “Anybody who has that attitude now is not going to make it.”

Following are nine ideas gleaned from CarriersEdge and several fleets that enjoy low turnover on some of the best ways to find and keep drivers.

1. Pay smarter

Everyone agrees driver pay isn't what it should be, but until freight rates really start rising, most fleets say they can't afford across-the-board increases. So progressive fleets are developing more sophisticated pay packages that reward drivers for behaviors that improve the company's bottom line, from fuel mileage to inspection reports to hard-braking incidents.

“There's got to be more to it than just so much a mile,” says Keith Tuttle, owner of Motor Carrier Service Inc. of Toledo, Ohio, which has been in the Truckload Carriers Association's top 20 list of “Best Fleets to Drive For” three years in a row and has a turnover rate of about 30%.

“There's a direct correlation between the guys that we consider our most professional, most dependable drivers — the guys that get the best fuel mileage, the guys that do their pretrips, the guys we never have maintenance issues with, the guys that leave early and anticipate they may have a problem on the road — and how much they take home every week,” he says. As a result, the top 25% of MCS drivers take home more than $63,000 a year.

Sometimes more pay isn't as important as more predictable pay. Some fleets have started offering a minimum guaranteed number of miles each week.

Ryder Dedicated says its ability to offer more predictable pay levels is part of its appeal to drivers.

“Some of our locations have a tough time when they're close to the oil and gas activities that have higher wages, but we've also seen about half the drivers want to come back within a few months,” notes Ryder Dedicated Vice President Steve Martin. “While the pay might sound great, it's not always there on a consistent basis.”

2. Ask drivers what they want

Before you embark on a big facilities improvement plan or a revamp of your bonus system, take the time to find out what drivers really want. They might surprise you.

You can set up driver advisory councils and use inexpensive, easy-to-use online survey tools such as SurveyMonkey or SurveyGizmo.

MCS, for instance, has a driver liaison team elected by other drivers. “We talk to them about new routes, new runs that are coming up, they help us devise incentive plans, and how they should be paid for bonus plans,” Tuttle says, among other things.

“You'd be surprised at the number of companies we talk to that don't do any active asking of their drivers, whether it's a formal or informal way,” says Murrell. “Those companies that do are the ones that have much higher driver satisfaction rates.”

If you survey drivers and act on their suggestions, drivers will begin to feel very quickly that their voices are being heard.

3. Use the World Wide Web

Make the most of online recruiting tools, including your own website and social media efforts.

Evaluators for the Best Fleets to Drive For contest look at a nominated fleet's online presence before they even set up an interview or do driver surveys.

“We can start looking at that online presence and get a flavor of what the company is all about,” says Murrell. “Is their Facebook just a constant stream of ads, or is it really a community? What kind of pictures are posted, and what kind of discussions are happening? Is it a one-way thing, or is there open discussion between the drivers and the company? I think it's interesting how much you can learn about a company by spending five minutes with their Facebook page.”

Paramount Freight System, Jeffersonville, Ohio, has had good success using Facebook to recruit owner-operators, including using contests and driver referrals.

Robert E. Low, (carrying the ball) is passionate in his campaign to improve driver health. The president of Springfield, Mo.-based Prime Inc. believes not only that it's simply the right thing to do, but also that this demonstration of caring improves driver retention. And he's obviously an executive who's very engaged.

Robert E. Low, (carrying the ball) is passionate in his campaign to improve driver health. The president of Springfield, Mo.-based Prime Inc. believes not only that it's simply the right thing to do, but also that this demonstration of caring improves driver retention. And he's obviously an executive who's very engaged.

4. Don't sugarcoat the job

If your recruiters foster unrealistic expectations among new hires, they aren't going to stick around long, and you're back to square one — plus you'll have former drivers spreading bad word-of-mouth about your company.

"We don't sugarcoat this job here,” says Tuttle. “A good percentage of our freight goes to New Jersey; we want that driver to experience that New Jersey traffic before saying, ‘That sounds like a deal for me.’ If a guy's only run from here to Nebraska or from here down to Mississippi, we almost want to talk him out of it.”

Interstate Distributors, Tacoma, Wash., addresses the issue by paying recruiters a straight salary rather than on a per-driver-hired commission. When recruiters are paid just to get drivers in the door, they're a lot less likely to give drivers the hard truths.

5. Do a better job of onboarding

Orientation needs to be about more than making sure new drivers are familiar with procedures, rules and regulations. It's your chance to show new hires that they're going to be treated with respect at your company and for them to get face-to-face with the people they will be dealing with on a regular basis.

At Paramount, for instance, fleet managers have lunch with their new driver as part of orientation to get to know them on a personal level. At MCS, they meet everyone they'll be dealing with, including spending half a day with the maintenance manager.

And don't let that introductory period end after orientation. Most turnover happens during the first 60 to 90 days. That's why some fleets are pairing up new drivers with experienced mentors for that initial period.

At Paramount, for instance, every new driver has a buddy who can help with the paperwork process, who knows the fleet managers and can help the newbie understand the ins and outs of everything to do with the company.

“It gives the new driver another voice other than operations, and gives both the new driver and mentor a sense of belonging,” says Trent Dye, PFS director and a 2013 HDT Truck Fleet Innnovator.

6. Foster driver health

More and more fleets are offering programs to help drivers become healthier, such as on-site gyms, exercise equipment in the truck, healthy eating and weight-loss programs, health screenings and the like. While there are many reasons for this, some fleets believe this evidence of caring about the driver helps boost retention.

Prime Inc. has an on-site gym as well as a full-time health and fitness trainer who works with drivers on diet and exercise.

Prime President Robert E. Low takes this a step further and says improving driver health will also improve drivers’ image among the general public, and thus help make truck driving a more attractive profession.

“A small trucker may not be able to have a gym like we do, but maybe they could put a ping pong table in the driver lounge or put in a walking trail around the terminal, something to get the drivers off their butts and on their feet,” says Low, an HDT 2013 Truck Fleet Innovator.

7. Get drivers home

Most of the truckload fleets we talk to that enjoy low turnover are those who get their drivers home frequently. This may mean more regional operations or more dedicated runs, relay operations, not taking on lanes that would inconvenience drivers, working with shippers to fine-tune lanes or delivery times or wait times, using sophisticated routing/planning systems, etc.

“It doesn't necessarily mean every night, but a good visibility on what their schedule is so they can plan and have some stability in that area of their life,” explains Ryder's Martin. “We find it very helpful in recruiting drivers that want to come from an over-the-road, unscheduled, uncertain type of environment.”

Baltimore-based Cowan Systems LLC has an average length of haul of only about 200 miles and is able to offer drivers home time every weekend. “It's very expensive to bring all those trucks home every weekend,” says President Joe Cowan, a 2013 HDT Truck Fleet Innovator, but this allows them to have a reasonable lifestyle, and helps keep the company's turnover in the 30% range.

Jet Express’ Kevin Burch says his drivers also are home more than the average truckload driver. “We're looking for dedicated, closed-loop, round-trip, just-in-time type deals,” he says. “That's what our niche is and that's why we attract drivers and they stay.” The company's turnover rate is under 40%.

8. Take care of problems promptly

“We have a saying around here: Don't go out of here on Sunday morning with an unresolved issue,” says Tuttle. “It's like a pimple on your backside — by Wednesday or Thursday, it's a boil.”

At Jet Express, Burch says, new drivers are told in orientation, “If you don't like what you see or if there's a problem with your shipper or a problem with your truck, you need to communicate that back to us because management can't read your mind. You are an important part of the company, don't quit before saying something.”

Murrell notes that you may discover some problems that need to be addressed when you do driver surveys, and he compares dealing with some of these to cutting out a cancer. “Nothing can kill a company faster than a bad decision that isn't rectified, a cancer that isn't being removed,” he says. “If there's a problem that isn't getting solved, the driver's going to be thinking about that day after day and feel there's no resolution at the company.”

9. Don't try to do it all

There are lots of good ideas out there for ways to improve the driver environment. But don't take the approach of throwing lots of different programs up against the wall to see what sticks.

In the “Best Fleets to Drive For” program, CarriersEdge discovered many companies have a large number of good driver programs — but drivers don't know about them.

Murrell recommends you target a small number of programs that fit with your company's culture and mission.

“Something we found out really makes a difference is figuring out what the company is all about,” he says. “There are some companies that are very focused on a couple of different things. They may have a wellness program or a bonus program they're very committed to, and they tend to do a lot better than fleets that try to be everything to everyone. You try to do too many things, and you end up not doing anything."

Using predictive analytics for recruiting and retention

Fleets are finding they can use the data they collect on driver performance in their retention efforts. It can be used to measure driver performance on fuel economy, safe driving or other metrics, with top drivers getting incentives or bonuses.

And a few large fleets are going beyond that with predictive modeling.This type of data analytics lets fleets not only identify the drivers most likely to have an accident before it occurs, but also those drivers most likely to leave.

“In the last six to 12 months, I think retention has become more important than safety,” says Chris Orban, FleetRisk Advisors, which offers predictive analytics. “Of course they really work hand in hand,” since hiring and retaining the right drivers will improve safety.

Predictive modeling can help identify a driver who is having problems such as not getting home often enough or not getting enough miles, so trucking managers can have a conversation with that driver and address the problem.

Orban explains that the models use data on drivers who have left the company in the past and tries to find key indicators. “We want to know everything about the driver. We want to know their on-time delivery, the hours they work, paid miles versus un-paid miles, their total pay, their net, if they have a change in federal tax withholding.”

Wait a minute. Federal tax withholding? Such changes may indicate a major life change such as a marriage, a divorce, a death in the family, a new child or a dependent leaving the household.

“Will this lead to problems with the driver? I don't know, but nowyou can talk with that driver to find out if there is a problem,” Orban says.

C.R. England is one fleet that is using the FleetRisk Advisors recruiting and retention features.

“It's an opportunity for us to continue to build relationships, that's the way we look at it,” saysThom Pronk, vice president of safety. “It's not us calling and saying, ‘We think you're going to quit in the next 28 days.'This is more a way to help us reinforce our culture of trying to interact with our drivers about real-life situations.”

“Maybe they're worried about whether they're going to get that home time request they put in. We need to make sure we're extra diligent he gets home to see his daughter graduate from high school.”

The tool also helps the company sort through driver applicants to find the best candidates, the ones recruiters will focus on first.

“It takes all the data we have on everybody who's ever applied to work for us, and who we've hired,” Pronk explains, “and compares their application data with the people who have been the most successful, who have been the safest and who stays the longest.”

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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