Driver shortages have plagued trucking companies since the 1980s. Is the industry finally getting serious about solutions?
by Michael Fickes
The trucking industry’s driver shortage remains an important and virtually insoluble problem.
In a survey conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute, trucking company owners and drivers ranked the shortage as the third most important problem faced by the industry. “If you eliminate responses from drivers – who don’t think the driver shortage is a problem – and count only responses from owners, the driver shortage is the industry’s top problem,” says Rebecca Brewster, president of ATRI.
And it is getting worse. According to American Trucking Associations’ Chief Economist Bob Costello, the industry today needs 30,000 more drivers. “As the industry starts to haul more because demand goes up, we’ll need to add more drivers – nearly 100,000 annually over the next decade – in order to keep pace.”
At current rates of recruitment, Costello estimates that the industry shortage may reach 239,000 drivers by 2022.
How do trucking firms crank up the rate of driver recruitment? The entire industry is working on the question – individual firms, driving schools, technology and truck vendors and groups are working to improve the image of the industry and its drivers.
Solutions include more aggressive recruiting through advertising, social media and visiting high schools; increasing funding and reimbursement solutions for driver training; changing the nature of the job with technologies that make driving and recordkeeping easier; fixing the turnover problem with improved retention programs; and industry image improvement programs.
More Aggressive Recruitment
Driver training schools, perhaps the industry’s most experienced recruiters, attract prospects through television and social media advertising. They tend to use less print advertising than in the pre-Internet era.
“Our biggest challenge is the industry’s image,” says Jill Balleh, president of CDS Tractor Trailer Training, a driver school with locations in Woodford, Va., and at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke, Va. “We are missing women and 20-something men and women.
“We should be talking to 18-year-olds in high school about careers in trucking that pay good wages. An 18-year-old may not be able to drive for a while. He or she may work in the office or the shop in the beginning. We have to talk to young people earlier. By the time the reach 25, it’s too late. They already have a career.”
“The Internet is today’s communication medium,” says Joey Hogan, president of Covenant Transport, a truckload carrier based in Chattanooga, Tenn. “Young potential drivers use some form of Internet communication – email, social media, instant messaging or texting. We used to spend thousands of dollars on print advertising, but we don’t do that anymore. Today, it is the Internet.”
Recruiting Military Drivers
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to an end, military truck drivers and heavy equipment operators are filtering into the workforce and looking for jobs. Trucking firms are developing programs to recruit ex-military drivers as civilian truck drivers.
YRC Worldwide Inc.’s LTL subsidiaries YRC Freight in Overland Park, Kansas and Mich.-based Holland have joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes program. Hiring Our Heroes helps veterans and military spouses find meaningful employment through nationwide hiring fairs.
“With hundreds of terminals across the United States, we have a strong presence of veterans already in our workforce, and we look forward to bringing more former military personnel into the YRC Freight and Holland families,” says James Welch, YRC Worldwide CEO.
The YRC program is using FASTPORT’s JobMaps technology to recruit drivers. JobMaps shows prospective recruits a mapped picture of the positions that fit their experiences and pass by their hometowns. The application also sorts available positions and lists those that best fit individuals.
Using FASTPORT, companies can place maps showing available positions on their websites, enabling prospective drivers to browse current postings.
The federal government is also easing the transition for veterans with military driving experience to civilian commercial driver’s licenses. “Those who drove while in the service can get their CDL, but they drove automatics in the service,” observes John Diab, chairman of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association, with 200 member driving schools across the country. “So they will have a restriction on their CDL and will have to enroll in a school or receive carrier training to modify the restriction.”
Paying For Training
As you recruit new drivers, you also have to train them – yourself or through driving schools. That, of course, is expensive.
It’s a problem that affects all industries, including trucking. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the United States will need 4.3 million more workers with postsecondary vocational certificates, some college credits or an associate’s degree by 2022.
To help pay for this training – and for the 6.8 million workers who will need bachelor’s degrees by 2022, Congress enacted the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act by a large bipartisan majority in July, and President Obama signed it into law on July 22.
CVTA strongly supports WIOA. “CVTA applauds the bipartisan efforts of Congress to enact WIOA,” says Don Lefeve, president and CEO of CVTA. “We believe this legislation will, in part, help alleviate some of this shortage.”
Among numerous provisions, WIOA supports access to workforce development opportunities in a number of ways, including on-the-job, incumbent worker and customized training programs. It would also enable businesses to identify in-demand skills and connect workers with opportunities to build those skills. Truck driving is considered an in-demand skill.
WIOA isn’t a panacea. “A lot of folks don’t qualify for WIOA support, and there aren’t any alternative funding programs,” says Balleh.
“Still, by linking jobs to in-demand occupations, WIOA will help trucking,” Lefeve says. “And we’re doing all we can to let state boards know that there is a real demand for drivers and a need for resources to help meet the demand.”
Change the Driving Job
For years now, trucking industry professionals have talked about how tough it is to drive a truck for a living. Maneuvering an 80,000-pound rig on an interstate and around a terminal requires skill and concentration. Keeping accurate records related to shipments and hours of service adds to the burden. Then, of course, truckload drivers must spend days and weeks on the road and away from home.
Together, these issues discourage potential drivers. Some truckload firms are responding by altering schedules to bring drivers home at least once a week.
While it appears to be taking current drivers a while to get used to electronic on-board recorders, new drivers will find automated logs easy to use and will never have to worry about the details of manual log-keeping.
Likewise, electronic dispatching with tablets and other devices makes it easier to receive and log load assignments. GPS systems help drivers navigate around traffic problems. Blindside cameras make maneuvering easier and safer.
A recent story in the ATA’s Transport Topics noted that some fleets are boosting the use of automatic transmissions to make driving easier and to help attract drivers. According to the article, fleet managers estimate that 47 percent of their trucks will have automated manual and fully automatic transmissions by 2015, up from 38 percent of trucks this year.
“Automatic transmissions have been around for 10 years or so,” says Hogan. “In the last two or three years, the technology has grown more stable, more reliable and less maintenance intensive. That’s why some carriers are growing automatic fleets.
“Still, these are going to be higher cost fleets, and that will be a consideration for some carriers.”
When You Find Drivers, Keep Them
Driver turnover continues to be problematic, especially for large truckload carriers. According to ATA’s Costello, the driver turnover rate in the fourth quarter of 2013 was 91 percent and had remained over 90 percent for eight straight quarters.
“We saw turnover at fleets with at least $30 million in annual revenue bottom out near 50 percent at the depths of the Great Recession and increase steadily since,” Costello says. “The rate appears to have flattened out at an elevated level for the moment. However, it could easily increase as tightness in the labor pool should continue and even worsen as the economy improves.”
Small truckload fleets posted better turnover numbers, logging a 79 percent rate in the fourth quarter of 2013.
The less-than-truckload industry has a completely different turnover profile. In the fourth quarter of 2013, turnover in that segment fell two points to 11 percent.
Given the fact that less-than-truckload drivers cover regional routes and spend most nights at home, the significant difference in turnover rates suggests that long periods away from home is a key problem that truckload carriers will need to address to retain drivers.
Carriers with retention programs point to driver pay, more time at home and benefits, including health and wellness, as important retention tools. In addition, carriers say that creating a career path that will eventually enable drivers to move out of the cab and into an office can help with retention.
Improving the Image of Drivers and Trucking
While individual carriers must take steps to attract and retain drivers, the industry as a whole has a role to play. For instance, Trucking Moves America Forward was created by industry groups to improve the industry’s image and make it easier to attract drivers and other workers to trucking.
“As an industry, we are being challenged on many levels, and a number of industry groups have come together to form Trucking Moves America Forward,” says Elisabeth Barna, vice president, image and outreach advocacy, with ATA and a member of the executive committee of Trucking Moves America Forward. “Our mission is to establish an industry-wide movement to create a positive image for trucking, to educate policy makers and the public about the importance of trucking to the economy and to build political and grass roots support.
“We also have an internal campaign to build pride in our industry. We do this by talking about the value that every job has – drivers, technicians, IT people, dispatchers and others. All of these jobs have value to the economy and we should take pride in them.”
In the end, the need for drivers – and other trucking industry personnel – is an industry problem. And industry action must form part of the solution.
The Driver Shortage In Atlanta
The driver shortage looks bad when considered nationally, but it’s even worse at the company level. Recent news reports have noted that some trucking firms have had to begin parking trucks and turning away business for lack of drivers.
It hasn’t come to that at Atlanta-based Atlas Logistics, but it is still a troublesome problem. “I would rank the driver shortage as our number one problem as a company,” says Walter Middlebrook, Atlas’s transportation and safety manager.
Atlas operates 119 tractors and more than 645 tractors to take care of a single customer – Kroger. Atlas transports frozen products, produce, dry goods and beverages to Kroger stores located throughout the region. The company’s 115 drivers make it home almost every night.
While regional trucking firms have an advantage in recruiting drivers over long haul firms, Middlebrook says the driver shortage continues to get worse, thanks to two Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration programs. They are the Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program and the Pre-Employment Screening Program (PSP).
“These are two of the best programs for making sure that companies and drivers are safe,” Middlebrook says. “But it does make the shortage more difficult to deal with.”
Additional recruiting difficulties arise from the fact that Kroger supermarkets are open all day every day. In turn, the truck drivers who haul Kroger’s goods must work all day every day, including weekends and holidays.
Atlas recruits by word of mouth, local newspaper advertising and on the company website. The company has also hired an outside recruitment agency that specializes in trucking and transportation personnel.
“In addition, we’re developing a program to hire veterans,” Middlebrook says. “We ask for two years of experience. Veterans may not have that much experience, but it is definitely a pool we need to be sampling.”
Atlas is also turning to technology to make drivers’ jobs less burdensome. The company uses PeopleNet onboard technology. “When drivers learn it, they like it, and that has helped make our CSA scores excellent,” “Middlebrook says.
Another technology Atlas has decided to test is automatic truck transmissions. “We just got a test unit, and our driver trainers are road testing it,” Middlebrook says. “They are veteran drivers, and at first they didn’t like the idea, but today, you can’t get them out of the cabin. They love it.”
In the end, that’s how trucking firms can successfully recruit and retain drivers: give them a job they can love.