Are you appreciating drivers this week? What about the rest of the year?

It's National Truck Driver Appreciation Week, Sept. 19-25. The American Trucking Associations, its state trucking association affiliates, trucking companies, truckstops and others are holding special events aimed at showing how important truck drivers are to them and to the country. T-shirts, hats, duffel bags and mugs will be handed out. There will be proclamations and press releases, picnics and pats on the back.

I was tickled to see Dart owner-operator Pat Rauschnot as one of the drivers featured on this video from ATA featuring drivers saying they're proud to be America's Truck Driver. "If you got it, I brought it!" she says. Early in my career I went with Pat on a trip from Wisconsin to the West Coast, and that certainly helped ME appreciate truck drivers!

The American Moving & Storage Association sent out a press release offering tips for consumers on how to ensure that the van drivers and other members of a moving crew handling a household relocation can perform safely, efficiently and comfortably.

ABF Freight is sending each ABF employee a special letter of appreciation, and ABF service centers host special events in celebration of the week.

New Jersey-based SalSon is supplying each of its drivers with a durable set of rain gear and sponsoring events at its various terminals.

This is all a nice way to show drivers they're appreciated. But appreciating drivers needs to be a year-round effort.

Real appreciation takes more than a video

Some truckers will grumble that a picnic at the home office, attended more by office staff than by the truckers out on the road doing their jobs, doesn't do much to make them feel appreciated. Hats and T-shirts are all very well, they often say, but how about spending some of that dough on driver pay?

Obviously, with freight rates only starting to come back up after the recession, raising driver pay is not an option for many carriers. But pay in many ways is just one way to show respect for drivers -- a measure of appreciation for the difficult, often disagreeable, and sometimes dangerous work they do.

If you really dig into why drivers leave a carrier, while they may say it's the pay, it's often the way they were treated that really drove them away. A dispatcher who doesn't listen to suggestions or complaints. A shop that doesn't bother to fix the problems a driver points out in his vehicle inspections. Payroll or settlement problems that fall on an uncaring ear in the accounting department. Years of experience and safe driving worth only a pittance more than the new recruits.

If trucking companies can't convince their current drivers of their respect and appreciation, it shouldn't be surprising that more people aren't clamoring to pursue truck driving as a career.

Driver shortage ahead

This is going to become even more of an issue moving forward. Many in the industry say as the economy continues to come back, as CSA 2010 and other initiatives prompt fleets to tighten hiring standards even more, we are headed into the "Mother of all driver shortages," as Jim Burg, president/CEO of James Burg Trucking in Warren, Mich., and one of HDT's 2010 Truck Fleet Innovators, put it.

Another HDT Innovator, Jim Mickey, co-owner of Coastal Pacific Xpress in British Columbia, explains: "We as an industry have even less to offer the prospective new driver entrant than we did pre-recession, as our margins have no room for additional driver wage components at this time. The general job conditions continue to decline, the pay cannot be considered an incentive, and we struggle in a society where the job has very little respect or allure. We have been chasing out the best of our workforce for many years, and there is nothing to point to a reversal of that trend."

But smart trucking execs, like Burg and Mickey, are swimming against that current. Both their companies had turnover far below the industry average, even during the height of the last driver shortage. And they do it by truly appreciating and respecting their drivers, treating them as the vital part of the company's team that they are.

"Our current drivers are the company's best asset," Burg explains. "They are experienced, trained, professional and walking testimonials of the company's treatment of its employees."