Even private carriers are upping their game. Walmart recently revamped its hiring process with a mentoring-based approach to assessing applicants.
 - Photo: Walmart

Even private carriers are upping their game. Walmart recently revamped its hiring process with a mentoring-based approach to assessing applicants.

Photo: Walmart

It’s tempting in the face of the ever-widening driver shortage to just go out and hire CDL holders as fast as they can be found, regardless of their long-term desirability as employees.

Quick fix, yes, but it doesn’t take an HR professional to know that will only drive up driver churn. That in turn will drive up the cost of recruiting and training, as well as costs involved in bringing on drivers less likely to drive as fuel-efficiently and safely as possible.

The idea that hiring fewer drivers will lead to keeping more of them does have an oxymoronic ring to it. Another way to look at it is to hire strategically, so fewer of those you hire will jump ship at the mere offer of a sign-on bonus or even a few cents more per mile. To put it simply, the whole idea is not to hire your turnover.

That’s easier to recommend than to implement, of course, especially when the pressure is on to move freight in these boom times. Yet once a smart hiring process for drivers is in place, the resulting drop in turnover, plus the gains from more fuel-efficient and safer driving, will pay back handsomely over time.

“You’ll hear it said that ‘You can’t sit and wait for the very best drivers to come along.’ On the other hand, you can try to sort out the merely qualified from the truly professional driver before hiring them,” advises Jane Jazrawy, CEO of CarriersEdge. The provider of online driver training works with the Truckload Carriers Association to put together the annual Best Fleets to Drive For recognition program.

An important component in the Best Fleets scoring process is analyzing driver feedback on the company and comparing it with management’s comments, she explains. “The two need to align for fleets to score well.”

This year, the top 20 Best Fleets to Drive For scored an average driver satisfaction rate of over 91% and annual driver turnover under 35%, “so what they’re doing is obviously working.” Of course, there is more to it than hiring the best available drivers. “You can’t let up on meeting their expectations if you want to retain the best,” she adds.

Southeastern Freight Lines says company cultures and values are key to retention.
 - Photo: SEFL

Southeastern Freight Lines says company cultures and values are key to retention.

Photo: SEFL

You and them

Kari Beeson, senior director of driver recruitment and retention for Transervice, a 3PL offering services that include logistics, dedicated contract carriage, and fleet leasing, says that, “Yes, you can sit and wait for the very best drivers. But drivers may not want what you can offer them. And it’s not always about pay. Even a driver who could make $80,000 a year and be home every night [on dedicated runs] may not want to work weekends and so will turn you down.”

Beeson, whose firm employs more than 600 CDL holders, says the first step in the hiring game “should be to determine your own threshold: Will you hire someone regardless [of certain standards] or wait for the best to apply, or bring on someone in between?” As she sees it, “a Class A [CDL] driver and a truly professional driver are two different things. We look to hire the professional, when we can.”

Ideal qualities sought for in Transervice drivers include “someone seasoned, with experience driving over the road or in cities or both. A clean [driving] record — and that’s not something I find enough. That’s the difference between the professional and the Class A driver. The professional worships and protects his CDL, as it ensures his livelihood.”

Tony Becnel, director of operations for Dupré Logistics’ Energy Distribution Services, is launching a new program aimed at increasing its driver numbers to handle both regular and peak seasonal (March to September) demand for gasoline deliveries to retail stations. “The goal is to go into our peak season with our work balanced, covering the freight with the correct headcount to cover the loads.”

To do that, the Dupré unit looked closely at the numbers. “We found the drivers leaving were doing so during their first six to nine months with us,” says Becnel. “Then we looked at who we had hired and how long it took to onboard them. We didn’t see a clear connection between those new to retail [tanker] delivery and their expectations of us. In short, we saw an uptick in turnover.”

Here vs. there

The churn at Dupré wasn’t up across the board, just in certain metropolitan markets. The next step was “getting all our managers and driver managers to discuss what we needed to do differently ahead of the next peak season,” Becnel explains. “We learned that there are differences in who to look for [to hire] and how long the process takes in different places, and we operate over 30 terminals. From our discussions, we came up with best practices that could be used at any location.”

Chief among these was “recognizing that success often depended on the type of driver we hired. Were they who we were looking for, or were they general-freight drivers? We found it was better to be more specific in how we described the job in the first place,” Becnel says.

With the management feedback gathered, the fleet “slowed down hiring so we could implement the best practices we came up with first in a handful of terminals.” The new approach included making sure applicants have a hazmat endorsement, instead of taking on a typical flatbed or van driver, “and simply [having] more conversations with them up front. That way, they have a better understanding of what we want and what we can provide them.

“Before this, with our old way, we did not know why they walked away,” Becnel says. Instead, by “having seen the gaps in communication we had, we now get the recruiter and hiring manager to tell the driver the same things. [The process] has to be a single continual conversation the driver has with several people along the way to being hired.” That way the new hire knows what he’s getting into. “We’re trying to present a consistent message across the board. And keeping it simple.”

Becnel admits that “we have not figured it all out, but we are seeing positive results. Now, we’re hiring fewer drivers yet seeing growth in our net number.” He says that while the fleet “basically broke even last year on net drivers, this year we already have 25 more in our onboarding process.”

Dupré found “success often depended on the type of driver we hired. Were they who we were looking for, or were they general-freight drivers?” says Tony Becnel, director of operations.
 - Photo: Dupré Logistics

Dupré found “success often depended on the type of driver we hired. Were they who we were looking for, or were they general-freight drivers?” says Tony Becnel, director of operations.

Photo: Dupré Logistics

Best not compromise

Richard Bogan, senior vice president of Southeastern Freight Lines, says that even though SEFL is a less-than-truckload carrier, which typically doesn’t struggle with the driver shortage as much as truckload operations, “even we have seen the driver shortage grow over the past year. If freight isn’t moving, then you know you have a driver shortage.”

Bogan contends it “takes creativity and deciding what is acceptable for you” to stay on top of driver hires. “A lot of companies may compromise on who they hire; we try not to. We also make sure not to overpromise drivers,” he advises.

“How you hire should include a strategy that considers controlled profitable growth,” Bogan says. “That takes a collaborative effort on the part of sales and operations. They must be aligned on how much freight we can handle efficiently,” so the fleet can know how many drivers to bring on.

“We pride ourselves on our reputation,” he continues. “People come here to work because they know we are reputable. It’s important that the driver applicant understand your fleet’s culture. We use our culture, our values here, to help us determine which qualified drivers will fit best with us. If you ask me,” Bogan adds with a laugh, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

He says how the driver fits with the carrier is as important as his driving qualifications. If it’s not a good fit, that hire is more of a risk.

SEFL employs over 4,000 drivers. Even though the turnover rate runs around 9% and the average tenure of an SEFL driver stands at 11 years, Bogan says, “No one bats a thousand. It’s a tough industry, and there are qualified drivers who want to improve their situation. That’s why the reputation of our brand matters — drivers know who we are in the marketplace.”

Even a brand-name LTL carrier like SEFL has to deal with local market forces. “We have 89 locations,” Bogan says. “In some, depending on how long we have been there, it can be easy to find [drivers]. But in a new, tight market, we have to look hard. Still, we won’t compromise on who we hire. So we might use drivers from elsewhere while determining our hiring decisions.”

As for what happens after the sale, Bogan says, “retention is about us being true to our culture, our values. When people feel honored and respected and are recognized for what they do, they stay. They stay because they trust us.”

Dupré Logistics is launching a program to increase its driver staff to handle regular and peak seasonal  demand for gasoline deliveries to retail stations.
 - Photo: Dupré Logistics

Dupré Logistics is launching a program to increase its driver staff to handle regular and peak seasonal  demand for gasoline deliveries to retail stations.

Photo: Dupré Logistics

Starting smarter

Even private fleets are sharpening their tools for driver hiring and retention in the face of the driver shortage. Walmart says its recent push to improve recruiting and retention was driven by the need to fill driving slots opened up by the giant retailer’s rapid business growth.

Last summer, the company revamped its hiring and onboarding program. It now includes a mentoring-based approach to assessing applicants that is credited with cutting application and onboarding time by over 50%.

In the past, driver candidates were given one opportunity to perform an assessment, during which they were evaluated for driving skills and conducting a pre-trip inspection. Now, applicants benefit from targeted one-on-one mentoring from veteran Walmart drivers that has been introduced into the process. Two centralized locations, in Casa Grande, Arizona, and Lauren, South Carolina, serve as week-long onboarding facilities for new hires, where they can observe veteran drivers and then practice those skills “the Walmart way.”

 “We’re leaning heavily on the expertise of our Walmart road team and our certified driver trainers to grow our skilled fleet of professional drivers,” says Lori Furnell, director of driver talent acquisition.

It bears noting that to qualify to take advantage of the new onboarding opportunity, applicants must already meet Walmart’s minimum standards for its private fleet drivers, which includes 30 months of experience in the past three years and a clean safety record.

No one’s perfect

CarriersEdge’s Jazrawy says fleets that want to stop hiring their turnover don’t have to wait for “perfect people.” Instead, she recommends fleets “look for way to help fill in the gaps for applicants, such as by offering a modified program to train them on specific skills, if they have the correct attitude for you.”

“At the end of the day,” says Jeremy Reymer, CEO of DriverReach, provider of a driver-applicant tracking system, “drivers need a good job and employers need good drivers. Give them just sugar-coated incentives like sign-on bonuses, and they will end up heading down the road again. You want to provide true incentives, like weekly pay guarantees and career development opportunities.”

Reymer, a member of the American Trucking Associations’ Workforce Development Committee, also contends that “if you want higher retention, then you must foster candor and feedback with drivers. You also want to encourage referrals — the best drivers come from other drivers.”

He suggests that none of what it takes to find and keep drivers is rocket science. Rather, he says, it’s just that “trucking is behind the curve compared to other industries when it comes to talent acquisition.”

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