Studies by PIT Group show that providing refresher training and coaching via in-vehicle technology is needed to maintain and improve driver performance over time. Photo: Pit Group

Studies by PIT Group show that providing refresher training and coaching via in-vehicle technology is needed to maintain and improve driver performance over time. Photo: Pit Group

While few people love trucking so much so they’ll drive your truck for free, there’s more to any job than a paycheck. And that’s where how you train your drivers, and how you communicate with them overall, comes into play.

Utter the words training and communicating in the same breath, and what you may hear calling back to you is the word perception. To some degree, we all perceive our intrinsic worth to family, friends, colleagues, and yes, to employers, by what we hear back from them. In the workplace, that generally translates to whether or not we feel valued or appreciated as employees — and as career professionals.

The best employers in any field go beyond merely providing training. They help employees improve their skills. And regardless of the job being performed, technology is increasingly playing a positive role to help employees develop their full potential on the job. Put that all together (along with a competitive pay package, of course), and you may be looking at a successful strategy for attracting and retaining long-haul truck drivers.

First, ask yourself if communication is the problem to the answer. That is, who at your fleet should be doing their level best to interact positively with drivers? Being a good communicator is certainly not the sole province of a fleet’s driver trainers. Everyone who regularly interacts with drivers should communicate with them as positively and pleasantly as possible.

“While most trucking companies have directors of recruiting, very few have directors of retention,” Lana Batts, co-president of Driver iQ, which provides employment screening, sagely points out in a recent report on recruiting and retaining truckload drivers. When it comes to “who actually owns retention,” she notes that a recent Driver iQ survey determined fleet operations to be primarily responsible. Underscoring that, it also found that “the driver’s direct supervisor, whose actions — or inaction — are probably the underlying cause of most turnover, was held responsible less than 1% of the time.”

Old pro vs. newbie

Wading a bit deeper into this discussion of how fleets can best interact with their drivers is a new Stay Metrics white paper on the expectations of experienced drivers. Primary author Tim Judge, director of research for the firm, which provides driver feedback to carriers, advises that approaching experienced drivers differently than those newly hired can help keep them — and their influence — working for a fleet. “Experienced drivers tend to be the best drivers and tend to have the lowest turnover rates,” he writes. “Second, experienced drivers are often thought leaders among their peers — the opinions of an experienced driver are generally going to carry more weight with fellow drivers.”

With that in mind, Judge suggests several ways to key in on your veteran drivers. For starters, don’t treat them like newbies. Consider creating specific communications that reflect their level of experience, focusing on topics such as bidding preferences and the value of employment benefits. There should also be incentives and awards tailored to recognize them, such as million-miler programs.

Superior, Wisconsin-based Halvor Lines, which runs over 430 tractors and a mixed trailer fleet of vans, reefers, and flatbeds, boasts a driver turnover rate of 38.5% and low CSA scores. Adam Lang, the truckload carrier’s chief risk officer, credits those high marks of success to Halvor’s late-model equipment, driver wellness program, and the commitment of management to fostering a culture of safety.

Lang says Halvor has “evolved” its training approach by going beyond hands-on instruction to incorporate online learning technology. “We use CarriersEdge training modules during orientation and for continuing driver education.” He says prior to adding the online component, Halvor had new drivers watch up to five hours of safety and training videos during orientation.

“That checked off the box,” he says, “but it doesn’t mean they absorbed it. But we find they retain information after going through the CarriersEdge orientation modules.” That online instruction covers C-TPAT and Security and Threat Awareness topics and includes tests that engage the drivers, so they just don’t listen but learn the material.

Halvor also provides hands-on learning, including on its own truck simulator. Lang says new drivers will typically “drive” the low-bridge simulation as a skill test. “We also use the simulator for continuing education. Our drivers come in once a year to test their skills against various scenarios.”

Out on the road, CarriersEdge provides continuing education to Halvor’s drivers. “If we see a skill that needs addressing, we can assign from a list of the training modules,” Lang says. “Drivers can use their laptop or tablet and complete the module when it’s convenient. We monitor how they are doing and record their progress.” Halvor can also upload its own material to the CarriersEdge web portal, such as refresher courses for in-person training drivers have completed.

Drivers who received specialized training plus personalized follow-up achieved greater fuel efficiency over time. Photo: PIT Group

Drivers who received specialized training plus personalized follow-up achieved greater fuel efficiency over time. Photo: PIT Group

Online on the road

“Good communications and training go hand in hand,” says Mark Murrell, vice president of sales and marketing for CarriersEdge. “That’s the thinking behind our interactive self-study modules. They let drivers learn where and when it’s most convenient to them and that helps them retain the information because they are receiving it in a less disruptive way.”

Delivering corporate training online is fairly new to trucking, he says, “in part because the trucking industry is ‘under-trained’ when it comes to providing for professional development [of drivers].” He says that’s due to how expensive and disruptive it is to provide ongoing training in person. “Drivers work away from the company. Taking training, including refresher courses, to drivers by putting it online makes them feel valued.”

But while online training is a great use of technology, he cautions that “it’s not everything. You still need the practical coaching on the road, and the classroom components with its social aspect, to have a complete training program. We provide a library of generic content and the tools to track all elements of the fleet’s training.” He says the training content runs the gamut from dealing with regulatory compliance issues to developing softer skills, such as how to respond at an accident scene or the steps involved in border crossing.

Regardless of who or what delivers the training, Murrell says to make it a point not to talk down to drivers and avoid taking an “or else” attitude. “Our approach is the driver is a professional and here are some things that can help them on the job. Feedback we get shows that drivers respond positively to that. It all comes back to communications. You get better results the more you interact with them.”

Recent research by PIT Group, a third-party engineering organization, shows that driver training to boost safety or fuel efficiency is only effective when it includes refresher courses. Separate studies it conducted of groups of truck and bus drivers found that providing refresher training and coaching via in-vehicle technology that address bad habits and reinforce effective skills is needed to maintain and improve performance.

In one fuel-efficiency study, PIT Group compared 47 control group and 38 test group long-haul drivers before and after simulator training. After training, evaluations were performed at one, three, six, and nine months. According to PIT Group research leader Jan Michaelsen, thanks to close monitoring and communication with drivers, including frequent reminders of how they were performing, the test data show that drivers operating a truck an average of 156,000 miles per year could save 2,640 gallons annually.

“Any technology you can apply to training should be seen as a tool,” says Michaelsen. “It’s what you do with it that counts. It’s clear to us, going back many years, that just giving training with no follow-up coaching or retraining is not enough.”

While he concedes that “training will have no impact on some, others will quickly revert to old habits if they don’t receive follow-up.” He says follow-up training can include issuing reports for drivers to review on their own key performance indicators as well as providing periodic coaching as warranted. Some carriers schedule general refresher training at least every two years

“It’s not revolutionary, but what you want to do is sustain your training efforts over time.” Michaelsen warns against letting things get stale. “You don’t want to provide the same training year after year without focusing on weaknesses or using new material to keep it interesting and effective. It’s not so much the type of training, but the monitoring and follow-up that delivers continual results.”

Inside the cab

“In-cab coaching can be seen as continually empowering drivers who want to perform better,” says Ed McCarthy, vice president of operations and customer success for Vnomics. The firm provides the True Fuel stand-alone system that combines vehicle monitoring, fuel-use analytics, and real-time driver coaching to help lower fuel consumption.

“Our True Fuel in-cab tool provides gentle coaching on how to drive in the most fuel-efficient manner. And it does so by focusing only on what the driver can influence, not what he can’t control like loads and roads.” The system coaches by sounding tones when the driver gets outside the most fuel-efficient range of operation.

“Because we use machine learning, we can adapt to the specifics of each truck, such as engine model and year and transmission type,” explains McCarthy. “So, we can coach on how the driver performs with those given specs.”

He says the most successful Vnomics customers use the technology fully. For example, by isolating the impact of idling allowed for powering hotel loads. “The idea is to coach them on what they are doing right and what must be worked on while taking into account any differences. That way there’s a fair assessment of the driver’s performance. We’ve seen incredible results when companies incentivize drivers to save fuel and empower them with this tool to achieve it.”

Halvor Lines, which boasts a driver turnover rate of 38.5% and low CSA scores, has “evolved” its training approach by going beyond hands-on instruction to incorporate online learning technology. Photo: Halvor Lines

Halvor Lines, which boasts a driver turnover rate of 38.5% and low CSA scores, has “evolved” its training approach by going beyond hands-on instruction to incorporate online learning technology. Photo: Halvor Lines

No shots in the dark

Technology comes into its own for training when it’s used to “deliver consistent content across a company and does so smartly — not by shots in the dark,” says Laura McMillan, vice president of training program development for Instructional Technologies Inc., which provides Pro-Tread online training as well as safety consulting services.

She says ITI’s Pro-Tread online offering for safety and compliance training is device-agnostic. “Drivers can access it on a computer, laptop, smartphone or tablet or by downloading our iOS or Android app. For example, a driver can start a course on their smartphone and finish it on a laptop without losing their place.”

Pro-Tread programming is based on mastery-based training, which uses quizzes and repetition of key points to foster retention. The idea is that by illustrating an idea visually, verbally, and through interactions, different types of learners will grasp it.

This type of training can also be highly customized, McMillan points out. “Setting up training is a collaborative effort with clients. We spend time with them up front to identify their top 10 safety incidents and then set up the content lesson for performance improvement. We help them understand using their data to identify what content to push out to drivers at which time.” The fleet controls all time frames for training, such as quarterly or bimonthly for refresher units, with the content automatically launched. But remedial training can be pushed out after an incident or accident has occurred.

McMillan cautions that technology cannot be viewed in a vacuum. She points out that managers should be aware that “a liability gap” can exist between all the data a fleet can now capture and the training they may actually provide drivers. “It’s incumbent on them to do something with that data, which is discoverable.” Otherwise, it could end up a liability risk. “If the data is used to set up preventive training and remediation for certain drivers, that would show they took action based on the data collected. The idea is to close the gap with training that is defensible.”

Brandon Folck, Ryder System’s director of safety standards, says the company wants as much face-to-face time with drivers as possible, “but when we can’t do that, going online lets us deliver training that satisfies compliance requirements and our own safety philosophy, which is ensuring everyone goes home the way they arrived at work.” Ryder, which employs just over 7,000 full-time CDL drivers, has been using ITI’s Pro-Tread system for 13 years, primarily to distribute new-hire safety orientation and remedial training along with any specialized company training. He notes that at Ryder, “remedial” refers to “retraining or updating education on certain issues.”

Folck says that “obviously with a large fleet like ours spread out across the U.S. and abroad, you need a way to communicate with them consistently across the system. The online approach also works in areas where we can’t have day-to-day contact with drivers.”

Despite leveraging such technology, Folck says it’s important to keep communications on a human level. “We certainly want to keep an interest in training going. One way we do that is to have messages from our leadership team posted where drivers log in for training. And when they log in, they see our Drivers of the Month on the screen. That helps foster buy-in for the training and keeping communications going.”

About the author
David Cullen

David Cullen

[Former] Business/Washington Contributing Editor

David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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