by Tom Gresham
Third in a four-part series on the truck driver shortage and what the industry, carriers and industry partners are to doing to address it. Part 3 focuses on training.
Training is at the heart of the trucking industry, so it’s no surprise that it also lies at the heart of the driver shortage and the motor carriers’ response to it.
Driver training schools throughout the country closed for long stretches in 2020, severely limiting the number of new drivers entering the industry and deepening the driver shortage. Meanwhile, some carriers are strengthening driver training as a priority for recruiting new drivers and retaining existing ones, understanding the high value that drivers place on it.
Michael Nischan, vice president of transportation and logistics risk control at EPIC Insurance Brokers & Consultants, said training is the foundation for a company’s culture and long-term success, and drivers are aware of how important it is to their own futures.
“Training has become more important than ever, particularly in light of the countless nuclear verdicts the industry has experienced, and drivers are thirsty for knowledge that will help them succeed,” he said.
SCHOOLS AND THE PANDEMIC
Al Hanley, division president, education and training at Transforce Group, estimated that approximately 95 percent of truck driving schools across the country were closed anywhere from two to six months in 2020. Hanley said it is logical to expect that some considering truck driving as a career opted to take a different path because of their inability to even get in the door at a driving school.
“If you think about that, if there were no new drivers produced last May, June and July, for instance, then right now, a year later, there are no drivers with one year of experience,” Hanley said. “It just created this kind of eclipse of new drivers into the industry. It’s massive, and I don’t think anyone’s really gotten their heads around that gap in the production of new drivers yet and the impact it will have.”
Bob Costello, chief economist and senior vice president for the American Trucking Associations, said the shutdown’s interruption of schools has no short-term fix.
“There is no way you can dig out of the deficit anytime soon,” Costello said. “Say we trained 40 percent fewer drivers than we needed. When we get back to normal, we can’t just train 40 percent more. You just can’t train that many people at once. So, it’s going to take time. You’re not going to make that deficit up overnight.”
Hanley said state motor vehicle agencies have been limited in the ways they can provide CDL testing during much of the pandemic, both for the written exams and driving testing. That has made good training programs even more crucial.
“It has made it very important for training to be effective quickly because if for some reason somebody doesn’t pass the test the first time it may take them weeks, if not months, to get retested,” Hanley said. “Whereas before the pandemic, retesting was very easy.”
Even as operations begin to return to something closer to normal, Hanley said most states are still struggling with the administration of driver testing. He believes forward-thinking states will allow third-party testing to help with the need for testing resources to meet the demand and to prevent delays and “choke points.”
“Without it, that can be another big barrier,” Hanley said.
Down the line at carriers such as J&M Tank Lines, Dave Edmondson, vice president of safety and compliance, said the impact of fewer trainees at driver training schools is evident. “We’re definitely seeing it on our end,” he said. “The number of applicants coming in has dropped. We pull from other segments of the industry, and they’re not getting new folks so they’re really focusing on retention, too.”
Edmondson said the better the training climate in the driving industry the more welcoming it will feel to potential new drivers.
“Training for the new guys is becoming key to attracting new people into the industry,” Edmondson said.
Hanley said a large iceberg looms on the horizon that is being overlooked by many in the industry: new Federal Motor Carrier Administration requirements for new drivers. Entry level driver training will come online for new drivers beginning in February 2022. Hanley said the requirements include content in theoretical classroom theory and vehicle maneuvering.
“When these new regulations go into effect, that’s just going to be another limit and barrier for entry,” Hanley said. “That just makes training more critical at schools like ours, because we’re going to need to help people get through the process the first time so that they can get to work.”
RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION
Training is a crucial part of recruiting for carriers, Edmondson said. At J&M, for instance, recruiters emphasize training to help drivers overcome concerns they may have about tankers and “a fear of the unknown,” he said. Edmondson said some drivers see a carrier without a strong training program as one that will not be a good employer overall – a sign of other shortcomings and a lack of concern about its drivers.
Hanley said carriers should have “finishing schools” for their new drivers that serve to onboard them, provide them needed initial touch points and train them on the specific skills they need to work for that carrier. Transforce Group offers a finishing school blueprint for carriers designed to help with the process, Hanley said.
Effective training in the onboarding process provides new hires with a higher likelihood of success.
“Every employed person has experienced the first day at a new job – it’s the first day in a new environment, with new people and new processes,” said Nischan, who is also an instructor at the North American Transportation Management Institute (NATMI) and has taught classes at the Georgia Motor Trucking Association since 2008. “It’s important to never assume that a new driver – just because he or she may be skilled at driving – will be comfortable and capable of meeting your goals if you don’t provide some level of training. Here’s your opportunity to make a great first impression by providing the tools to be successful. Remember to view training as an investment, not an expense.”
Ultimately, Edmondson said, “A good training program helps immensely with retention.”
“If your training program is good, it gives the driver the competence and confidence to do their job correctly,” Edmondson said. “Plus, that’s usually the first impression they get of a company, and if the training program is good, then it gives drivers a favorable review of the company as a whole.”
Nischan agreed that driver training plays a vital role in driver retention.
“After hiring a driver, the next most important task is retaining that driver – and a training program sends the message that the employer genuinely cares,” Nischan said. “This equips employees with the knowledge needed to meet your expectations and perform safely and translates into an environment that will likely provide stable, safe and long-term employment.”
Nischan said a common training-related shortcoming he sees among carriers is a lack of preparation and access to resources.
“Every company does not have the luxury of employing a knowledgeable and skilled safety department,” Nischan said. “With growth comes additional challenges, and it’s important to accept that eventually a significant investment in safety should be made – and this could include hiring an in-house safety director or a safety consultant. Each motor carrier is different, so knowing precisely when to make that investment will vary.”
Even the timing of training can have ramifications, Edmondson said.
“One of the biggest missteps I see people make is the length of time of the training,” Edmondson said. “It can’t be so short that we’re putting guys out there and they’re not being safe and you’re more likely to see incidents, but it can’t be too long that it keeps them from making money and they won’t want to wait that long. So, you’ve got to find that sweet spot.”
Nischan said carriers should be taking a close look at themselves and weigh whether they are committing enough to safety through training.
“Review your out of service rates, collision history, claims history and Safety Measurement System performance,” Nischan said. “Are you trending in the wrong direction? Are enforcement officers conducting focused vehicle stops on your trucks? Do you have a conditional safety rating or have you incurred recent enforcement interventions? Are you facing profound insurance premium increases or a non-renewal? Has legal action been taken against your company? If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, investing in safety should be a top priority.”
KEYS TO SUCCESS
Nischan said training needs to be regularly scheduled and part of every driver’s work routine.
“I prefer monthly training sessions because this approach provides structure; it’s something drivers can expect,” Nischan said. “Regular training could include corrective-action coaching following incident involvement or a roadside inspection with less than desirable results.”
It also can be easy to overlook that training should not be dull or drivers might not engage.
“Whether you decide to employ an instructor-led interpersonal approach or an interactive online training platform, your intent should be to inspire, motivate and educate,” Nischan said. “If you’re developing your own content, this gives you the unique opportunity to build something specific to your culture, and drivers will be able to identify more closely with the program.”
Nischan said keeping training current to the newest trends and best practices is essential so that your drivers never fall behind.
“The only thing that is for certain is change,” Nischan said.
Edmondson said an effective in-house training program requires consistency, so that one driver is not getting a markedly different experience or guidance than another driver. Drivers should also feel comfortable with the latest technology in the cab.
“There’s a lot of technology going on in the trucks, and you need for the driver to know that technology so he can get the best use out of it,” Edmondson said.
Training can be about more than just practical driving knowledge. In the end, training is about helping drivers succeed. With that mind, Nischan said featuring wellness in training will help drivers and aid retention.
“Every driver is required to be medically qualified, and this helps a driver stay employed and keeps your trucks rolling,” Nischan said. “By providing wellness newsletters at regular intervals, you can begin to instill healthful habits among drivers, and this can have a positive impact on turnover. These newsletters don’t need to be extraordinary; just a paragraph or two per month can bring about gradual health improvements among drivers over the long-term. Topics could include diet, exercise, smoking cessation, fatigue, alcohol, stress relief, etc. If you’re providing valuable information that ultimately improves driver health, you have just created a retention component…and what’s not to like about that?”