"If we don’t infuse our fleet with young, talented drivers, we’ll retire ourselves out of business.”
That’s the dilemma Phil Byrd, president and CEO of South Carolina-based Bulldog Hiway Express and past chairman of the American Trucking Associations, and many other carrier executives are facing as the nation’s pool of truck drivers skews more and more toward retirement age.
Fleets have had trouble finding good drivers as long as there has been a trucking industry. Much of that problem has been related to driver turnover, or “churn,” as the same pool of qualified drivers keeps circulating, or churning, among carriers.
Today, however, that pool of drivers is static if not shrinking, in the face of rapidly rising demand for truck capacity.
The truck driver population is aging rapidly. According to the American Transportation Research Institute (the research arm of ATA), in 2013, 56% of truck drivers were older than 45, compared to only 49% of the nation’s total workforce. In 1994, 40% of the nation’s truck drivers were 34 years old or younger; in 2013, only 21% were 34 or younger.
At the same time, Noel Perry with transportation analyst firm FTR says the industry is facing “an impending wave of regulatory drag scheduled for late 2016 and beyond,” including productivity losses anticipated from the implementation of mandatory electronic logging devices and other new driver-related rules.
That’s why the industry, as well as individual carriers, are looking for ways to expand that driver pool.
Driving a truck for a living is not seen by today’s youth (or their parents) as a desirable profession, as our society increasingly pushes high school graduates to pursue a college education. In fact, a good portion of truck driving school graduates are empty nesters and second-career seekers in their 40s.
Even if a high school student is interested in trucking, federal regulations mean he or she is limited to intrastate trucking until age 21. By the time they hit that age, most young people who might otherwise be interested in driving a truck are already involved in another trade or profession.
On top of that, many insurance carriers require drivers to be older, typically 23 with at least two years of verifiable experience.
The insurance question is especially a problem for small- to mid-sized fleets that can’t self-insure, says Byrd. So Bulldog Hiway Express, working with its insurance carrier, recently implemented a program allowing it to bring on 21-year-olds.
The company, which has several hundred trucks involved in flatdeck and drayage operations, designed a 200-hour, seven-week curriculum that teaches skills such as defensive driving, load securement and hours of service rules. The goal is to train only a few drivers at a time, for a total of 22 drivers a year.
These new drivers will have a full year of incident-free driving under their belts before they’re allowed to come back and get additional training to haul steel coils or over-dimensional loads, and they won’t go into the congested Northeast until they’ve proven themselves in less-challenging regions.
Yes, it’s a big investment, Byrd says, but “it’s the future of our survival.”
Minnesota-based Brenny Transportation/Brenny Specialized is going after even younger drivers, taking advantage of the lower intrastate age minimum to help bring on 18- and 19-year-olds. Because the 55-truck company has extremely low turnover and a stellar safety record, its insurance company has been willing to be a little more flexible, says Joyce Sauer Brenny, CEO and founder.
Brenny’s program puts drivers with a commercial learner’s permit through 17 weeks of training before drivers do any runs on their own. They start out on short, cross-town runs and remain local drivers until age 21, but still come in weekly for mentoring and feedback sessions. Even once they’re 21, a trainer goes with them on their first few over-the-road runs.
Many fleets, however, say they can’t put in the kind of investment Brenny has in developing a training and progressive driving program for these younger drivers. “But when you look at the investment [fleets spend on] turnover, we feel it’s worth putting in on the front end, finding the right person and spending the time with them,” Sauer Brenny says. “There are a lot of good young ones out there if you have the resources for them to go intrastate till they’re 21 years old. We’re fortunate enough to have enough local stuff where we can do that.”
She’s working with the Minnesota Trucking Association to come up with a graduated CDL training program for younger drivers, as well as a pilot program to gather real-world data to share with insurance companies and regulators.
Meanwhile, ATA is pushing Congress to address a lower driving age in the upcoming federal highway bill.
With an estimated 5-7% of the commercial truck driving population made up of women, there is a large labor pool that could be tapped. Carriers are increasingly highlighting the successes and experiences of their women drivers.
Con-way recently launched a video series on YouTube featuring the experiences of two of its longtime women truck drivers and their careers in truckload and less-than-truckload driving.
Bennett International Group, a woman-owned carrier based in McDonough, Georgia, last year launched a program called Bennett Women in the Driver’s Seat. The program features profiles and articles about Bennett’s women drivers on the company’s website. It also includes networking and mentoring opportunities, and a one-year membership to the Women In Trucking association, a group representing women in all aspects of the trucking industry.
Werner Enterprises recently named driver and trainer Felicia Berggren the first woman to drive one of the fleet’s patriotically decked-out Freedom Trucks. She represents the company and visits truck driving schools and other events across the country, putting a public face on opportunities for women in trucking.
Companies that are doing a good job of recruiting and retaining women “have a culture that values and appreciates women,” says Ellen Voie, president of Women in Trucking.
“Years ago you could walk into a terminal and see more women in the mechanics’ calendars than you did in trucks,” she says. “Fortunately, that has changed, but not everywhere.”
Some recommended strategies for drawing — and keeping — more women drivers:
- Make sure your recruiting ads appeal to both men and women. WIT last year ran a competition to highlight ads appealing specifically to women. The three top ads, from Walmart, Republic Services and Prime, emphasized truck driving as a career choice.
- There should be women visible in management roles.
- Consider women in your truck specs. WIT has worked with truck makers on ergonomics, and leasing company Ryder recently announced a special spec designed to appeal to women. Specs considered female-friendly, such as automated transmissions, adjusted height and placement of cab grab handles, easier access to oil and coolant checks, and adjustable foot pedal height, also can appeal to any driver that doesn’t fit the “burly trucker” stereotype, as well as young people who may never have driven a manual transmission and expect a more comfortable work environment.
- Address concerns about security. This could include cab security systems, training drivers about personal security, and allowing dogs that act both as a security alert and provide companionship.
- Revisit your company’s sexual and gender harassment policy and make sure it’s enforced. Discrimination and harassment issues have resulted in high-profile legal cases against trucking companies, especially involving training programs where male trainers were teamed up with female trainees on the road. Women in Trucking offers members a 30-page anti-harassment guideline.
The American Trucking Associations and the Truckload Carriers Association have both committed on behalf of their members to hiring what adds up to hundreds of thousands of veterans in the coming years.
Companies such as Schneider, J.B. Hunt, Waste Management and YRC Freight appear on the list of most military-friendly employers at GIJobs.com. According to J.B. Hunt’s website, nearly 20% of its driving force is veterans. Werner Enterprises set a goal of hiring 5,000 veterans in five years and exceeded that in a little more than three.
At Wisconsin-based Schneider, 27% of company drivers have military experience, according to spokesman Mike Norder, who says the company has a long history of being military-employee friendly. An apprenticeship program with the Veteran’s Administration gives veterans up to $1,146 a month in their first year. For reservists or people in the National Guard, Schneider does not require them to use vacation time for drill commitments.
To help with the transition from the military, Norder says, “In the onboarding we will pair them with another veteran from our training staff and a training engineer that has military experience, so their first couple of weeks with Schneider, they’re with somebody that really does know what they’ve gone through.”
The only LTL carrier on the GIJobs list is YRC Freight. Less-than-truckload carriers traditionally have not had difficulties finding drivers, but that is changing.
“We need to continue to fill up the pipeline — we have people retiring, we have a very senior employee list,” explains Mitch Lilly, senior vice president of labor and employee relations at YRC.
Hiring military personnel who are currently exiting the military also helps address the issue of bringing in younger drivers. “They’re going into the military at 18 and coming out at 22, and that’s perfect,” says YRC Freight Director of Recruitment Dave Renfrew.
“The key to that is they don’t have a lot of experience in city driving, in backing, etc., so we’ve developed a training program to hone their skills and prepare them for the road,” Renfrew adds.
There are a number of agencies and programs that can help your fleet connect with veterans, including the Department of Labor, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes program. A number of trucking companies work with FastPort, which has teamed up with Hiring Our Heroes to match returning veterans with trucking jobs. Some programs even allow hiring companies to work with military personnel starting as long as a year before they are due to get out.
Kansas-based YRC Freight started seriously working on hiring veterans last May. By the end of 2014 it had hired 411 veterans, and between 2014 and 2018, the company says, at least 25% of its hires will be military veterans.
“We started this for the driver program,” Lilly says, “but we’ve expanded it to all functions of the company, because those core values [of military personnel] mirror our own, and we need those caliber people in all levels of our team.”
Whether they focus on younger drivers, women, military, or other possible recruits, fleets that want to avoid getting “retired” out of business need to start looking at every way they can tap the wider labor pool for new drivers.