Driver recruitment has been a persistent and weighty challenge for the trucking industry in recent years, but the emergence of COVID-19 and the subsequent strain it has placed on trucking capacity has only heightened the issue’s importance. In fact, Jeremy Reymer, founder and CEO of DriverReach, said, “I’ve never seen such a challenging environment for hiring drivers.” In such a climate, experts say a creative and committed approach to driver recruitment is more crucial than ever.
An array of factors is making recruitment more difficult – both ongoing challenges and new ones brought by the pandemic. Among the more recent issues tied to COVID-19, experts point to drivers deciding to leave the industry because of health and safety concerns, and the severe slowdown in the supply of graduates from truck driving schools, which have faced closure and other safety precautions that have limited the number of prospective drivers they can train – coupled with hampered operations at state DMV offices. Another dramatic new pressure on the driver shortage was the introduction of the drug and alcohol clearinghouse, which has led to tens of thousands of drivers being forced to leave the industry.
“So, you have a number of drivers that have been removed from the industry for safety purposes, which is a good thing, and then you have many more than that not driving as a result of concerns related to COVID-19 – whether that’s because of unemployment insurance or concerns over their safety and well-being, which are legitimate,” Reymer said. “And it’s not being offset by new entrants.”
Bob Costello, chief economist and senior vice president for the American Trucking Associations, said “it is not only about finding enough drivers, but it’s also the quality of the drivers out there.”
“When we talk about the driver shortage, I’m always stressing that there are people out there who are quote-unquote truck drivers who can’t find a job,” Costello said. “And it’s because they probably have something in their past driving records or an inability to pass a drug test or something like that. So, it’s also a quality issue. And I would say recently it has gotten even worse. And now even just finding the necessary numbers is a challenge.”
Reymer said the roadblocks for new drivers are especially problematic to making headway in recruiting.
“We’ve seen a significant drop-off in the number of new entrants this year driven by COVID-19,” Reymer said. “You couldn’t get a license, couldn’t get a test, even if you were wanting to. So, there have been a lot of delays and a lot of barriers to getting new drivers into the industry to replace those who had exited.”
Kimberly Castagnetta, chief marketing officer for TransForce Group, recommends that operators reevaluate their hiring standards. She believes many companies spend more time screening out drivers than screening them in, missing out on capable drivers.
“We’re working with clients right now on how to put new entry drivers and veterans to work,” she said. “A lot of that has to do with getting beyond looking at their old hiring standards and reevaluating new hiring standards to make sure you’re doing what it takes to make drivers successful.”
In that vein, Kelley Jones, director of recruiting for Kennesaw Transportation in Rydal, Georgia, said Kennesaw has gotten good results this year recruiting drivers who had stepped away from the industry long enough that they faced obstacles to returning. Kennesaw is helping them navigate those obstacles.
“We’ve worked to help them get back to driving,” Jones said.
Reymer said trucking companies should embrace the role of sales in recruiting and remember that the process is about trying to convert a prospective driver into a driver. A major part of that is selling your operation.
“It’s important that you identify what is it about you as a trucking company that is attractive or could be attractive to the potential drivers that are going to be the right fit,” Reymer said. “And then you communicate those things in your marketing and your messaging and your branding to ensure that it’s resonating with the right audience.”
Central to that communication is ensuring that companies reach drivers “where they are,” Reymer said. That has meant “a huge increase in social media marketing” in the industry, he said.
“Almost all [drivers]have a smartphone,” Reymer said. “Many of them just by the nature of what they do for a living – if they’re long-haul, over-the-road drivers – they are connected to the internet and to social groups. And so it’s important to market to them and find them there.”
Wages remain a core factor in recruitment, but experts point to the increasing importance of work-life balance as a key ingredient to attracting new drivers. In particular, drivers are finding jobs that limit their nights away from home particularly appealing.
“If you can get a driver home more often, a lot of drivers will take less money,” Costello said. “I talk to people all the time who say, ‘Oh, if I can get them home like every other night, they will actually do those jobs for less money.’ If it was only about pay, the driver shortage would be easy. We’d all just have to pay more for transportation.”
Castagnetta agreed that drivers are more interested in lifestyle issues than ever before.
“Drivers now are getting very particular on things like wanting their own truck; they want shorter routes, and they want to make sure that they’re home more frequently,” Castagnetta said.
Jones said asking drivers questions about their preferences is essential.
“Instead of saying, ‘All right, you need to be here at this time, and you’re going to do this and this and this,’ you have to ask them, ‘What do you want to do? How do you like to run? How often do you want to be home?’” she said. “It can’t just be black and white anymore.”
Jones said Kennesaw seeks a host of ways to make work as comfortable as possible for its drivers. For instance, the company has worked to give its drivers more options for parking and fueling while on the road.
“We try to offer a lot of things that drivers tell us they want,” Jones said. “So, they like to be able to take their grandkids on a couple of trips during the summer. They want to be able to take a pet on the truck with them. They want the comforts where they can get them, like bringing an X-Box with them so they can play games.”
Other industries compete for truck drivers in part by being able to offer more regular hours that send workers home at the end of the day. Two of the more competitive alternative industries that have been hiring during the pandemic include construction and local delivery (particularly in large metro areas).
“It’s always a challenge with over-the-road truck drivers, if they are looking to be home more often, then you are competing against every other job option that they are a fit for where they could be home more often or even every single day,” Reymer said. “And I think that’s certainly an issue in a COVID environment.”
Castagnetta said trucking companies are responding aggressively to drivers’ shifting preferences and needs.
“Companies really are focused on trying to reroute a lot of their lanes to get their drivers home more,” Castagnetta said.
THE HIRING PROCESS
In light of the competitiveness of the driver market, Reymer said the simplicity and ease of the hiring process becomes paramount. A complex, confusing, time-consuming process will push drivers to other operators, he said.
Reymer said “It is important to make it as easy as possible to get drivers into your funnel.” For example, an application process that requires prospects to print or download a 20-page application will be a bad experience that risks drivers abandoning the process, he said.
Castagnetta said TransForce Group revamped its hiring process after a survey of more than 800 drivers found that 61 percent of them found the online hiring process confusing and overwhelming. In response, she said TransForce Group made the process more “high touch” and personal for drivers, as well as speeding it up. TransForce Group also made it more mobile friendly.
“Operators need to listen to drivers,” Castagnetta said. “If they haven’t surveyed their own drivers to really understand what works and doesn’t work in their hiring process and what they can do to streamline and make that effective, that absolutely needs to be first and foremost, because that’s where it all starts.”
Similarly, Reymer said a streamlined onboarding process after a hiring is important to prospective drivers.
“How long does it take? Can you move quickly? How efficient is the process?” Reymer said. “Those are all things that matter because that driver likely applied to four or five other companies, and who can move the quickest and – assuming that all else is equal – can have you in orientation tomorrow and starting your new job on Monday is going to have an advantage.”
Costello said the slowdown in the training of new drivers will have enduring consequences that will take time to overcome, meaning driver capacity challenges will remain and recruitment will continue to be a primary concern for operators.
“Even if things changed tomorrow and we all got back to normal, there’s no way to dig out of the deficit we have anytime soon,” Costello said. “That’s going to take a long time to get out of; you can’t just train that many new drivers all at once.”
However, the pandemic has produced one bright spot on the recruiting landscape. It has illustrated the crucial role drivers play in the country and its economy.
“It’s highlighted how important truck drivers are and shown that they’re ‘heroes on the highway,’” Costello said. “They’ve gotten a lot of well-deserved publicity.”
Reymer said that development will provide a boost for the industry.
“I am encouraged that this year trucking has been recognized as an essential industry,” Reymer said. “And that’s encouraging because, COVID aside, one of the challenges that the industry always faces is image and being able to improve that is always paramount in order to encourage more people to get into the industry and become the drivers that we need.”