by Tom Gresham
Kelley Jones, director of recruiting for Kennesaw Transportation in Rydal, Georgia, has been around the trucking industry and its drivers for years. She loves the work, and she enjoys the people. “Drivers are some of the best, most big-hearted people out there,” Jones said. “They keep this job fascinating for me. They’ll have you laughing all the time.”
From her experience with drivers, Jones knows that in some ways they are like workers in any other field. They do not like to be taken for granted or feel as though they and their work are not being respected. And they know the difference between a company that genuinely cares about them and one that does not.
“You hear companies say a lot, ‘Hey, we know you. You’re a name, not just a number to us,’” Jones said. “Well, you can say that all day long, but you have to actually live it. If you don’t walk the talk – if you don’t keep that open door policy for your drivers and do the things that you claim you will for them – then they are going to recognize that and they are going to leave.”
Driver retention has taken on increasing importance in the freight industry as carriers and others wrestle with a persistent driver shortage that has put a constant strain on those who depend on drivers to operate. While recruiting has long been emphasized, experts say that more carriers are putting a focus on engaging their current drivers and building a culture that honors their input and strives to serve their preferences and needs – keeping them happy, engaged and on the company’s payroll.
In light of the ways the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the driver shortage, retention of existing drivers has never been more essential.
“I don’t think, beyond safety, that there is anything more critical than keeping and finding safe, qualified professional truck drivers, not just to the companies that employ them, but to our economy,” said Page Siplon, CEO of TeamOne Logistics, which is based in Alpharetta, Georgia.
A major reason driver retention has become so paramount to carriers is because they recognize that failing to emphasize the issue will lead to driver losses that will be challenging to make up through recruiting.
“Companies have to seal the boat because right now the boat is leaking,” said Jeremy Reymer, founder and CEO of DriverReach. “The best way to recruit is to keep the ones you’ve got; there’s much less stress on your operation if you can keep the drivers that you have.”
Those carriers that do not embrace the importance of driver retention could face dire consequences, said Tim Hindes, CEO of Stay Metrics. Competition for drivers is so intense that drivers will simply gravitate to other carriers that take engaging with them more seriously.
“These carriers who wouldn’t be the favorite – the first pick – of drivers, I’m worried for their survivability,” Hindes said.
Because of the high demand for drivers, it is no surprise that their pay – a factor in retention in any field – continues to climb.
“The natural market reaction to any shortage is that the price goes up,” said Bob Costello, chief economist and senior vice president for the American Trucking Associations. “The same thing is happening with drivers. You don’t have enough of them, so their pay is going to go up. And that will continue to happen.”
Hindes said drivers are paid well enough that compensation typically is not a risk for prompting drivers to exit for other career fields.
“Overall, compensation trends are very favorable,” Hindes said. “The idea of people leaving the industry for higher-paying jobs isn’t happening. We’re not seeing that. We’re seeing significant increases in pay.”
Compensation goes beyond salary in the role that it plays in driver retention. Incentives that reward loyalty to drivers also serve to demonstrate a company’s loyalty to its drivers, while bolstering their overall pay package. Kennesaw, for instance, offers a $10,000 loyalty bonus to drivers every time they hit a new five-year milestone of service with the company, Jones said. The company also offers holiday bonuses each year based on length of service. Hindes said he is noticing an increase in rewards and recognition incentive programs as carriers seek more creative ways of paying their drivers better.
Drivers who feel as though they are not being paid fairly can be ideal targets for recruiters from rival carriers. Reymer said the money itself is part of that equation, but so is what the money represents to drivers.
“How much a driver is paid is always going to be a factor in turnover, and especially when drivers are constantly being hounded by other carriers that are looking for drivers,” Reymer said. “But generally, pay is not the number one thing. Usually, that number one thing is respect. That can be manifested in a lot of different ways, and pay happens to be one of them.”
Experts agree that compensation is not the primary driver of retention. An emphasis on driver engagement is at the top of the list.
Siplon said retention and engagement starts as early as the recruitment process. Companies that recruit drivers by focusing on numbers rather than fit are creating a scenario where turnover is inevitable. Beyond drivers’ basic qualification, he said, companies should be looking for factors that suggest the driver and company will be a good match for the long term – putting “square pegs in square holes,” he said.
Reymer said the application experience, onboarding and initial training represent a first impression that will stick with drivers.
“From an engagement standpoint, the driver is most susceptible to turnover generally in that first 90 days,” Reymer said. “The verdict may still be out – it’s the honeymoon phase – so it’s important to engage them with regular communication and check-ins. These are touch points that you want to make sure are in place.”
The importance of steady communication endures throughout a driver’s career. In general, there often is a disconnect between what drivers’ top concerns are and what carriers believe their drivers’ top concerns are, Siplon said. However, it is a relatively simple challenge to solve – just communicate with them.
“We’ve really looked hard in the past handful of years at instead of just saying to our drivers, ‘Alright, you need to be here at this time and you’re going to do this,’ asking them what they want to do, how they want to run, how often they want to go home,” Jones said. “Those are the conversations you have to have with them. It can’t just be black and white.”
Siplon said trucking companies need both informal and formal ways of engaging with employees – from an open door policy to feedback forms. Among the more formal methods, Hindes said surveys and other feedback products that help determine why drivers are attracted to a company and why they leave are critical. He said driver feedback that is haphazardly acquired can feel as useful as the old suggestion box, attracting feedback from chronic complainers, but few others. Those carriers who are getting the most helpful driver feedback are collaborating with others to use the field of industrial organizational psychology to build surveys that can predict driver behavior, including if someone is a risk to leave. For example, Hindes said, a survey may show the top five things that dissatisfy a carrier’s drivers, but a more effective survey can go a step further and highlight which of those things predict churn, allowing the carrier to emphasize those.
“Let’s stop guessing and start understanding what the root causes of turnover are,” Hindes said, adding that even with more sophisticated surveys, follow-through on the results of surveys too often is not treated as a priority.
“Most carriers spend a lot of money hiring a consulting company, putting good surveys together, and then they delegate [the follow up]to somebody in lower middle management,” Hindes said. “That’s a recipe for failure. These initiatives have to be driven at the top or they don’t work.” In other words: feedback means nothing without action.
“You’ve got to execute and do more than just listen,” Siplon said. “That means doing the things that you can, but it also means explaining to drivers why you can’t do something and continue the conversation with them. If you don’t, it creates an ‘us versus them’ attitude, and nobody wants to be part of a culture like that.”
Conversely, feedback that leads to action can be powerful to driver relationships. For instance, more carriers have accommodated drivers’ requests for shorter routes and more nights spent at home in recent years, even shifting their market to shorter hauls to meet those preferences, Hindes said.
Responding to driver feedback empowers drivers and makes them want to stay with your company, said Reymer: “They know that their voice is heard. They have that sense of respect.”
CULTURE IS CRUCIAL
The expression “Culture eats process for lunch” is particularly applicable to carriers at the moment, said Hindes, adding “The stronger the culture, the more likely the carrier is to have better retention than its peers.”
Culture requires financial investment, but it is “a great business decision” to make that investment, Siplon said.
“When you’ve got a better culture, you’ve got better retention,” said Siplon. “That’s means your customers are going to be more apt to give you more business, and you’re going to get referrals from drivers to bring in other drivers. That pays dividends for your business.”
Culture can mean an array of components, but the chief one is respect for the drivers and ensuring that they feel a sense of purpose and connection to their work and their employer. Siplon said companies have to realize and recognize the many facets of being a driver; that it’s not as simple as pressing a pedal and steering a wheel.
As simple as it sounds to make sure drivers feel “part of the team,” Siplon said too many companies maintain practices that relegate drivers to a secondary status. Reymer agreed; he sees companies that boast of their culture, yet fail to treat drivers as equals.
“You have to remove those types of barriers and embrace drivers as part of your operation,” Reymer said. “It’s really important, and it still happens where managers and drivers are kept separate, and they don’t engage with each other. It’s very old-school thinking. I think that’s changing, but it still has a way to go.”
Jones said companies need to create a culture from a genuine place, one that represents who they are. Kennesaw is a family-run company, and that family atmosphere permeates the entire business, she said.
“Each company has to figure out what separates them from everyone else,” Jones said.
No matter the company’s unique characteristics and culture, engagement with drivers represents the best bet for keeping them in the fold.
“People want to feel valued,” Siplon said. “They want to feel like they’re contributing to an overall mission and overall goal. It really makes a difference.”
Read more about the importance of communicating with drivers on GMTA’s blog, truxonline.gmt