It’s taken a long time to get there, but it looks like over-the-road trucking has begun to turn the corner on embracing diversity as a fast, efficient, and socially responsible business strategy to help curb its driver shortage.
Not so long ago, most truckers were white males, and few truck fleets thought to reach out to members of racial/ethnic minority groups to help grow the ranks of truckers.
In 1987, trucking was put on notice of the demographic sea change coming that would shrink the traditional driver labor pool, thanks to the landmark Hudson Institute study, Workforce 2000. That report accurately forecast changes that would reshape the American workforce at the start of the new millennium.
A key premise of the report, which viewed “demographics as destiny,” has proven out for motor carriers. The Hudson Institute correctly predicted that by 2000, the population and the workforce would grow more slowly than at any time since the 1930s, while the average age of both would rise and the pool of young workers entering the workforce would shrink.
The result would be a rise in the number of women entering the workforce and minorities accounting for a larger share of new entrants into the job market. Immigrants alone would represent the largest share of the increase in both the general population and the workforce since World War One, the report predicted.
These demographic shifts have already had a positive impact on trucking, attracting more non-white males as well as more women, white and minority, to trucking jobs.
By the numbers
According to a recent American Trucking Associations driver-shortage analysis, 40.4% of truck drivers were minorities in 2018, a jump of 13.8 percentage points from the 26.6% figure of five years before.
“The industry has historically struggled to attract all segments of the population,” note the authors, Chief Economist Bob Costello and Research Analyst Alan Karickhoff. And while the number of minorities may have risen, drivers are still mostly male. The report points out that just 6.6% of truck drivers in 2018 were women. “This percentage hasn’t changed much historically, ranging from 4.5% to 6.6% over the last 18 years.”
Last year alone, ATA says, trucking was short roughly 60,800 drivers, up nearly 20% from 50,700 the year before. If current trends hold, the shortage could rise above 160,000 by 2028.
So, as more and more veteran white male drivers retire from trucking, there’s room for more drivers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds to be hired. Women are wanted as drivers more than ever as well. That’s a topic of its own, as what fleets may determine they need to do to attract and retain women as drivers may go beyond casting a wider net, such as making changes to equipment specs and various company policies.
But in addition to filling empty drivers’ seats, removing hiring bias and developing a diverse workforce delivers other benefits.
“Companies need diversity,” Meredith Wholley, an HR professional with talent-management firm Clear Company, contends in a recent blog post.
“It is beneficial to an organization to think with a wider breadth of perspectives, it portrays a positive image to the public eye, and gives them access to the potential revenue gains from employing people who can contribute different things to the companies they work for,” she continues. “Unfortunately, hiring diversity is an issue that has only recently begun to improve.”
Yet looking at trucking, it’s clear that many fleet managers are more aware of the value of diversity hiring than just a few years ago. There’s still room for improvement industry-wide, but that doesn’t take away from the success stories being shared already, especially by long-haul fleets that have been hit hardest by the driver shortage.
“Drivers are in such high demand that expanding the driver pool is a big issue for us,” says Patrick Pendergast, vice president of recruitment for Ryder System. Noting that the company has partnered for several years with Women In Trucking to eliminate obstacles women face to becoming truck drivers and technicians, he says Ryder is committed to “bringing in a diverse workforce. So when we enter or expand in a market [for drivers], we advertise in Spanish or other languages besides English to make sure we are reaching as many prospects as we can.”
Pendergast concedes that when it comes to recruiting minority drivers, the “hardest part is there’s no silver bullet. We have a lot of experience hiring in markets across the country, vs. for-hire carriers operating just out of certain domiciles.
“We’ve learned that different media draws differently in different markets,” he continues. “We use everything from local papers to radio to billboards to stickers on trucks.” He also advises companies determine where to advertise for drivers by asking current minority drivers where they turn for local community news.
Tim Staroba, president of Denver-based Navajo Express, addresses a common misconception about recruiting minority drivers. “We’re an Equal Opportunity Employer,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we can’t do outreach differently [to different groups].” He says being EOE-compliant means “we hire the most qualified person regardless of their background. Our outreach is about letting people know the job opportunities exist. We have brand recognition and we let people know we are an EOE, so come take a look at us.”
Navajo is a wide-ranging truckload, dedicated and regional operation. That means it recruits drivers from many locales, including Arizona, New Mexico, the Rocky Mountain states, Arkansas, and Wisconsin.
Staroba says that outreach includes keeping Navajo Express’ name in front of Hispanic and other organizations serving “whatever community is out there because, of course, we want to drive up their interest in employment here.”
He says this effort starts small, literally, with taking part in local Touch a Truck events for kids. “It’s a great way to put your truck out there. You often end up talking to a lot of folks; everybody is there and in a positive environment. It especially increases awareness with young adults.” In a similar vein, Navajo does a lot of “one-off events with high school classes, like on career days. We’re always getting pinged to take part in things.”
Navajo has some bilingual staffers at its headquarters, who Staroba says can be called on if someone is “more comfortable speaking Spanish,” at least initially. He points out that Navajo is also able to cast a wide net because it’s willing to consider hiring applicants without CDLs. “If they are brand new to trucks, we can teach them. That may be the difference that matters— we are willing to invest in their [CDL] training.”
Attractive to all
Prime Inc., one of the country’s largest truckload carriers, also offers CDL training to newbies and has been doing so for nearly two decades. “We don’t specifically target minority groups in our recruiting,” says Jim Guthrie, director of operations at the Missouri-based truckload carrier. “But we try to do all we can to be an attractive organization for a wide range of demographics. A referral program we have for drivers helps us with that outreach. We do have a lot of drivers who are of Hispanic/Latino backgrounds.”
Guthrie says Prime has “always taken the approach of being very diverse. We want to attract anyone who is safe, professional, and qualified to consider a career here, no matter what their nationality, race, or gender is. We’re offering an opportunity for anyone who has the business acumen and drive to work hard. What matters most is being qualified” for the job.
In terms of offering CDL training, he calls that “our one-stop appeal that helps market us to people who may not know trucking, but who need a good-paying job where they live. We extend our ‘umbrella of support’ and explain they can come in as a company driver or an owner-operator. Most of our drivers are not employees; they’re independent contractors.
“Outside the industry,” Guthrie adds, “people may not know there is a driver shortage. So, we have to think outside the box to find enough people qualified to drive a truck. And Prime is in all 48 states. We are everywhere, really, and we take the same approach to everyone, which includes training our associates to work to support each of our drivers.”
Deen Albert, director of operations for Grand Island Express, offers a similar perspective as Guthrie. He says the Grand Island, Nebraska-based refrigerated carrier, which fields some 134 tractors and 300 trailers to serve the eastern two-thirds of the country, “doesn’t so much recruit minorities as make sure we are not leaving them out and [are] making everyone feel welcome.”
He says that effort starts with having a bilingual staffer who can help recruiters if there’s a language barrier. It continues with the fleet’s open-door culture. “We invite our drivers to speak with senior management right up to the president, who knows them by name. This personal approach helps us treat them as individuals and make adjustments” based on knowing them on a personal basis.
Grand Island also keeps in mind that drivers may have specific needs to consider. “We have a diversified freight mix, with our bread and butter being beef loads out of Nebraska. We’ll work to accommodate drivers who can’t haul certain food products due to religious restrictions.” Thanks to its freight mix, the carrier also runs some regional routes, including ones entirely intrastate, which helps accommodate drivers whose religion may require them to be home off the road before sundown on Fridays.
“You want to recruit where people are,” Albert says. “Grand Island itself is very diverse due to the meat-packing industry here, which hires many minority workers. We’re currently doubling our recruiting staff and along with that, we’re working with a local multicultural coalition to help develop culturally sensitive training so our staff can improve the onboarding process for new employees. We also provide mentors, who are paid extra, for new drivers, and some of these are bilingual.”
Halvor Lines, a Superior, Wisconsin-based truckload carrier that runs 530 tractors and 1,350 trailers out of four Midwestern terminals, has long prided itself on low turnover and CSA scores.
Debbie Landry, director of driver services, says the family-owned fleet operated out of Superior for many years drawing on a traditional white male workforce. “We have really diversified as we have added new terminals, as there is more diverse populations in those locations. For example, in addition to Hispanic-American communities, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area there is the Somali community.”
In response to a more diverse labor pool, Landry says the carrier has worked cultural sensitivity into its recruiting and driver-training programs. Adam Lang, Halvor’s chief risk officer, notes that “using CarriersEdge’s very customizable online training modules has allowed us to cover being more receptive to diversity in the workplace, for all our employees.”
“Once we started pulling in more diverse applicants, we found that being more diverse across the board seems to build stronger relationships,” Landry says. “And that helps us draw in more recruits from different groups.”
She says the fleet has only had to make small adjustments along the way, noting that Somali-American drivers appreciate that Halvor is considerate of their religious requirements as Muslims not to consume pork and to pray at certain times. “They appreciate that we are trying to understand their culture.”
“The industry is not what it was 20 years ago,” observes Lang. “A generation of drivers have retired, but we have to keep trucks going, so we are open to reaching out to members of all communities.”
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