If there's a silver lining to the current economic situation, it's that the driver shortage has eased somewhat. It's a perfect time to fill your trucks with the best drivers out there - but screening drivers to discover which ones are the cream of the crop and which are the bad apples is an ever-changing challenge.

The first thing you have to consider is making sure you satisfy U.S. Department of Transportation regulations regarding verifying a driver's employment history, motor vehicle records, and drug and alcohol use.

One of the biggest challenges for fleets is verifying the mandated information on past employment. Although previous employers are required by law to provide this information, sometimes it's easier said than done to get your hands on it - especially in a timely fashion. 

"A lot of big corporate employers don't want to give you anything," says Sherry Bass, vice president of capacity development at Texas-based FFE Transportation. "It used to be 'name, rank and serial number.' Now it's just, 'Yes, John Smith worked here.' You only get the most recent dates only, or no dates. In other words, the applicant might have worked there three times, but their system only has the most recent dates he was employed." And just that snippet frequently is provided by an automated system that charges users a fee.

Many lawyers advise their clients to not provide any information about a previous employee other than the fact that they worked there. Anything beyond that, the reasoning goes, could open a company up to a lawsuit.

In 2004, a DOT rule on minimum safety performance history went into effect to try to deal with this issue. The rule requires previous employers to respond within 30 days to questions by prospective employers investigating an applicant. Previous employers are required to go back three years to confirm employment and provide other information about employees such as crash involvement, alcohol and controlled substance violations, rehabilitation efforts, and reversion to illegal alcohol or controlled substances if rehabilitation was unsuccessful. The rule also limits the liability of those required to provide and use driver safety performance information.

Most companies do provide this information, says Chad Govin, corporate manager-business services sales with J.J. Keller, but not always. "It's kind of a gray area. The rule says you have to do it, but there's not a ton of enforcement. The burden of the regulation is on the hiring company to make a good-faith effort and to document the attempts made to retrieve this information." Documentation includes items such as copies of faxes, letters sent via certified mail, copies of e-mail, and notations of telephone conversations including date, time, the name of the person you talked to, and what was said.

Sometimes the issue is not so much getting the information, it's getting it quickly. Speed is of the essence these days to get the best drivers to come to work for you before someone else snaps them up. Although regulations don't require you to get this information before you hire a driver, only before he's been on the job for 30 days, you really want to find out early in the process if a driver's work history is going to disqualify him. 

The current state of the economy, with trucking companies going out of business every day, adds another challenge: How do you verify employment with a company that no longer exists?

So FFE and other companies often turn to other methods of verifying employment, such as getting copies of W-2s or pay stubs from the drivers to fill in the blanks. 

One of the oldest tools to help accomplish verification of drivers' work history is the DAC Employment History File offered by USIS. DAC Services, which stands for Drive-A-Check, was a company founded in 1981 to help trucking companies comply with the regulations on background screening. USIS, which offers employment screening, drug testing and background investigations for a broad range of industries, bought them several years ago.

"The nice thing about the DAC file is that right now, [previous employers] have a minimum of 14 working days [to respond], and in some cases 30 days or the first safety-sensitive function," says Steven Spencer, senior director of transportation sales for USIS. "The DAC file is pretty much an instantaneous response."

DAC is a database of previous driver employment information provided by participating carriers. Fleets provide what USIS calls the termination records, which contain answers to the questions required by DOT. There are also optional information sections on topics such as drug and alcohol results and accident details. All that information goes into the system and then can be accessed by any other subscriber. 

Drivers frequently complain that their DAC files are inaccurate or misleading. One driver, for instance, complained in an online forum that he was disqualified by a potential employer for falsifying his application because he didn't list as an "accident" an incident where a piece of tire tread on the road ripped out his trailer air lines. 

DAC is governed by the same rules that apply to consumer credit reporting agencies, so if any driver disputes his or her information, USIS under law is obligated to investigate. If the previous employer verifies that the disputed information is correct, it remains in the file, but the driver can file a rebuttal, which also is kept in his file.

"We're an aggregator of information, not the creator," Spencer explains.

Digging Deeper

Most experts agree that in the real world, you should do more than the federally mandated background check.

"There's a whole realm of things like negligent hiring and negligent retention that those regulations were never designed to address," says USIS's Spencer. 

USIS and other companies offer different types of background checks beyond the employment background, drug and alcohol and MVR checks required by law. There are criminal records checks, sexual offender checks, consumer credit reports, Social Security Number verification traces, CDLIS checks, etc.

For instance, iiX, College Station, Texas, specializes in providing motor vehicle records searches. ExpressNet, a secure Internet application, lets customers pull up MVRs instantly in most cases. This is a lot faster than trying to get MVRs from each state yourself, says Stefanie Haggerty, sales and marketing manager. In most states, it's still a mail-in process to request that information directly. The company also offers criminal background checks, SSN verification, sex offender registry information, and it recently started offering outsourced DOT employment verification services.

You might want to consider criminal background checks for drivers and other employees who will have access to sensitive materials or will be handling high-value or theft-prone loads, Haggerty recommends.

For some driving jobs, checking sex offender registries might be desirable. "Especially if you have drivers that are doing home deliveries or are in any situation where they are segregating themselves with some part of the public, you really want to be aware if there's any kind of sex offender history there," says USIS's Spencer.

But even the most detailed fact-based checks can only go so far. If you want to truly get useful information about what a driver's really like on the job, that\'s going to take some skill, persistence, and knowledge about the trucking industry. An intern in the human resources department doesn't fill the bill.

"I think many times companies have a clerk-type person that they don't pay much money, and they expect to somehow have a critical part of the selection process done very thoroughly, and that's typically not going to happen," says Greg Mechler, a former trucking executive who now offers consulting services through Prelipp and Mechler Associates. "A skilled person doing the background investigation is worth their weight in gold. I've seen some very skilled people who can do these and get hold of people at companies, even big companies that tend to put you into an automated queue and all you get is name, rank and serial number. The right person can sometimes get to the person's driver manager and get some meaningful information."

That's exactly what MTS Driver Recruiters, Southfield, Mich., which provides outsourced driver recruiting services, has learned.

"The biggest thing when you talk about being able to distinguish between drivers who are more qualified and [those] likely to become a safety issue, it's a matter of truly understanding their background and their potential to do damage," says MTS CEO Ken Walker. "We take more of an investigative approach to background rather than an administrative approach."

While many trucking companies do their DOT-required due diligence, Walker says, "we're responsible for having answers for our customers. That means we have to actually do whatever is necessary to actually investigate that person's background and talk to that employer. I think a lot of employers, if they took the same approach, while it may be time-consuming and costly to go that extra mile to get those answers, they'd make it up on the other end."

MTS has specialists who know who to call at various companies, who have developed relationships with those people, and who know what questions to ask and how to listen to the answers.

"A lot of times, the people doing background checks don't understand the operational side of it," Walker explains. "If you've got an administrative person with a list of questions, they don't understand how to interpret the data and probe in the right areas."

For example, Walker says, if a driver has had an accident or an incident, the details of that event could make a big difference in whether or not you want to hire that driver. "An administrative person may not understand the significance of the seriousness of incidents in a vehicle going forward versus a vehicle going backward," he explains. "A guy backing a 53-foot trailer into a tight dock may have in his history one or two instances of hitting another trailer," and still be a good driver. "But a guy who hit a trailer going forward is an entirely different animal."

Automating The Process

All of this has been made easier than it used to be, because one of the biggest changes in the driver screening process in recent years is the increasing ability to automate parts of the process.

"One of the big events we've seen are applicant tracking systems or workflow processing," says USIS's Spencer. "We used to handle everything on paper; now they're relying a lot more on electronics. We do a lot of partnerships and integrations where our information is flowing into someone else's [automatic screening] system."

For instance, at Tulsa, Okla.-based Tenstreet, a program set up to screen electronic driver applications can go ahead and "score" applicants based on factors important to the company based on the applicant's self-disclosed information, such as clean MVR, amount of experience, drug and alcohol testing, criminal record, etc.

"It's very, very important that you get to those top guys first," says Tenstreet CEO Craig Johnson. "Everybody wants the 'good apples,' so if you have a way that the application comes in and you use software to process it faster, you can make a bona fide offer faster. If you're continually losing out to the companies that have a faster hiring process, the cream of the crop is taken by other companies, and you have no choice - you have to hire what's left."

Tenstreet also has an automated master checklist to help recruiters get all the little steps done that they have to do before they can make an offer. Then there's seamless integration with USIS/DAC and other major driver background screening services. With one click, you can run an MVR or criminal record check.

"What we're trying to do, we're trying to get rid of a lot of the grunt stuff so the recruiters can concentrate on talking to drivers and hiring the good ones," Johnson says.

J.J. Keller also offers an online driver management product that helps automate the recruiting, screening and hiring qualification of drivers, Govin says. Fleets can build a customized driver application on their own web sites. As drivers apply via that web site, the information is pushed through a "filter" based on a company's particular requirements, such as minimum age, maximum number of jobs in a given time period, maximum gaps between employment, maximum number of accidents or traffic convictions in a set period of time, whether they've even had a license denied or revoked, etc.

Govin recommends that companies be selective in publishing all their job requirements up front. "Anyone who's smart will make sure they fill out the application to meet those requirements," he says. 

One problem with driver application filters is that while they can work very well on a company's own application, if you're getting generic driver applications from online recruiting services, they may not work as well, says FFE's Bass, who uses Tenstreet's system.

"It's not because the system doesn't work," she says; "It's garbage in, garbage out." For example, Bass says, on a question asking about experience, a driver could answer five years. "Maybe they drove for five years, then worked in a factory for 10 years, then went to truck driving school," Bass says. "That five years that long ago isn't going to help me today." The filtering is most useful for more "high-level" screening, Bass says - up-front, straightforward things such as age or state of residence.

Personality Screening

If you really want to hire the right drivers and avoid the "bad apples," you should go beyond a simple look at driver history and background checks.

"Most companies don't divulge much information other than the bare facts that that person worked there, so it's more challenging today to get any insight into how this person's going to function in [your] company," Mechler says. 

Trucking companies tend to weigh past experience very heavily, says Richard Scheig, CEO of Scheig Associates, Gig Harbor, Wash., developer of the Scheig Hiring & Performance System. "But practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. There may be a very good reason that guy's out looking for a job. Just because you've been something doesn't mean you were a good something. Experience is not the be-all and end-all that lots of [employers] think it is."

Keller's Govin says that the best companies have a profile of the type of driver they want, based on the past experience of people who have been successful at the company. "They look at, 'Who are our best drivers now,' and they kind of profile the candidate they want to be looking for. The companies that are successful have a good idea of the attributes that are going to make a new hire a successful driver."

There are several behavioral assessment tools, or personality tests, that aim to help companies do exactly that.

Many people are skeptical of pre-employment testing, but that's because many pre-employment screening methods don't really do the job, Scheig says. IQ, aptitude, psychological testing and skill testing, he says, are all more predictive of job success than the traditional job interview, but they all have flaws.

For instance, he says, "skills testing is good; that's what CDL testing is all about, skills knowledge. But the problem is that even the most technical job is maximum 30 percent technical; 70 percent to 90 percent is human factor behaviors that have a huge impact on performance.

"So you get drivers who have a CDL but they're terrible performers," Scheig says. "They don't show up on time, they're harsh with the customers, all the other factors that make up that job. We say hire for the behaviors, train for the skills. Credentials by themselves don't mean anything."

Mark Tinney, president of JOBehaviors, offers similar job-specific compatibility assessments and explains that, "you could have two drivers in front of you that could both demonstrate [driving skill] - only one of them is an outstanding driver who is going to bring safety as a behavior to the job, who knows he's a representation of his employer out there on the road, who gets along with dispatch and law enforcement. You can have your safety meetings and make everyone watch safety videos, but if that individual doesn't bring safety as a core behavior to the job, it won't have as big of an impact as if you identify those people right up front."

There are a number of behavioral assessment tools available that address these shortcomings, matching traits with ones that are known to be associated with successful truck drivers.

For instance, Scheig Associates and its newer competitor, JOBehaviors, also located in Gig Harbor, have developed job-specific behavioral assessments based on behavioral analyses of people who are acknowledged to be outstanding in their jobs. They offer these assessments for jobs as varied as truck drivers and technicians, childcare workers and school custodians.

"We're not trying to measure the person in the abstract or some psychological trait," Scheig says. "Rather, we measure the person for the job."

Both Scheig and JOBehaviors start out asking a group of superior performers to describe the behaviors that make one good in that job. At the end of the first day, they'll have a list of 300 to 500. The second day they ask the panel to rate those behaviors to come up with a list ranked from the most important for performance to the least important. Those behaviors are then used to create a screening assessment. The applicant is given pairs of statements and asked to answer which one best describes themselves. These statements have been "controlled for social desirability" so that a person can't simply choose the one that "sounds" the best.

"It's as if every individual being considered has to get through a panel of some of the best drivers in the industry," Tinney says.

Another behavioral assessment is the Professional Dynametrics Program offered by Prelipp and Mechler Associates. This test measures four predominant behavior traits, Mechler explains: dominance, extroversion, patience and conformity. It also measures a person's logic process or decision-making style; energy level, and their style of using energy.

Mechler's firm goes into a company and runs profiles on the drivers that company identifies as its best drivers. Then the software can create a model based on those best people and you can match applicants against it. For example, he says, a typical truckload driver profile tends to be low on the dominance scale and also low on the extroversion scale (let's face it, an extrovert is not as likely to be happy spending long hours alone behind the wheel). On the other hand, they are high on the patience scale and the conformity scale. (People who score highly on conformity are those who pay attention to detail and to doing things right and tend to have fewer accidents.) 

The best use of this program is not so much simply a matter of screening people out, Mechler says, but rather a way to understand them better and see how well they\'re going to fit in, and what a company should do to increase the chances the person will be successful with the company long-term. It can be used for training drivers more effectively, for instance, and for training driver managers and other people how to relate to drivers more effectively. (Perhaps not surprisingly, successful driver managers tend to be opposite on the behavioral measures from drivers.)

In fact, he says, "if you just run the assessment on an applicant and put it in the file and never use it again, you've grossly minimized the value of it."

And that's a key thing to think about. For the most success in your driver recruiting and retention efforts, driver screening should be about more than just not hiring the bad apples. Used correctly, the initial investigation into a driver applicant's suitability for the job can help make sure not only that you hire the right person, but also that you manage that person throughout his or her career with your company to be both a satisfied and productive employee.