COLLECTION: Turning Around Driver Turnover

It's a driver's market these days, with good drivers hard to find and even harder to keep. Look in any newspaper's classified section and there are scores of available positions for licensed commercial drivers offering attractive pay and benefits. But it's not enough just to offer competitive compensation packages.

"You can recruit drivers with money, but you can't retain them with money," warns Bill Nestor, partner with Markinetics/Fleet Solutions Alliance, Marietta, Ohio, a consulting firm specializing in fleet management. In addition to a livable income, drivers need safe vehicles and open communication channels with their employers. They also want to be treated with honesty, fairness and respect. With eroding company loyalty, anything less could lead to discontent and may push drivers onto rosier streets, Nestor says.

Many for-hire carriers experience turnover rates of 100 percent a year, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), Alexandria, Va. Consequently, many companies are stuck in a vicious cycle of investing significant amounts of revenue and resources in recruiting and training new drivers only to have them jump ship when a sweeter deal comes along.

Factoring in marketing, advertising, orientation and training, Nestor estimates the immediate replacement cost per driver ranges from $1,500 to $7,000 before a driver ever takes the wheel. The actual and potential lost revenues per driver range from $10,000 to $30,000.

"There are a lot of numbers thrown around," Nestor observes. "There are some errors in terminology. There's driver turnover costs and driver replacement costs. If you look at the long-term costs such as safety issues resulting in increased insurance premiums, missed pickups and deliveries, and customer service, driver-oriented issues are really having a negative effect on the industry right now."

One problem is that many company managers lack basic driver management skills, which are different from generic management skills. Too often, companies spend their resources on marketing to recruit new drivers, Nestor says. Management techniques that typically work within the corporate walls don't translate with drivers in the field.

Furthermore, companies that take the position that as long as the wheels are rolling, everything is fine "are cutting their own throats," Nestor says. "Drivers will not come to you. You must reach out to them," he says. "Good drivers usually suffer in silence, then quietly disappear."

Companies also can lose drivers when they fail to fulfill recruitment promises. "You have to play from the same sheet of music from recruitment, to orientation, to training, to actually being on the job," Nestor says. "Initial expectations must correlate with reality, otherwise it doesn't take long for drivers to start asking, 'OK, who lied to me first?'"

Another scenario that can drive haulers away is when they're expected to perform tasks not covered during orientation and training, such as customer service-related duties or detailed paper work. If these are job responsibilities, employees should be trained from the beginning rather than given additional duties without explanation once on the job, Nestor says.

A comprehensive driver management program that includes proper training and open communication can go a long way toward breeding employee loyalty.

One way Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), Houston, cultivates a positive relationship with its employees is by recognizing outstanding workers each month in its Blue Line newsletter, which is circulated to all of BFI's North American facilities in English and Spanish. Customer letters praising employees also are reprinted in the publication.

As a communication vehicle, "our employees can e-mail our CEO directly," says Dorothy Beeler, director of public affairs. BFI employees also can participate regularly in company-wide conference calls where the CEO addresses issues generated from the e-mails.

"It is very important that we listen to our employees," Beeler says. For example, this communication mode along with an Intranet site where employees can contact each other across the country has alleviated some of the concerns about the BFI-Allied Waste Industries, Scottsdale, Ariz., merger.

From there, proper equipment training is key, Beeler says. All new BFI hires complete orientation, video training sessions on safety and equipment operations, as well as individual training for machinery and equipment operations. While many BFI drivers come from within the waste industry and don't require training from scratch, no new hire jumps in the truck and drives off on the first day, she says. "Our equipment is unique. We have a lot of automated trucks. Each driver spends a certain amount of time riding around with other drivers."

BFI's aggressive safety training program, which includes regular safety meetings and an information bulletin board, further helps to prevent injury-related turnover, she notes. BFI's "Jobsurvation" program offers skills coaching for employees in safety sensitive positions, such as drivers and landfill staff. And clearly established safety rules and regulations, and standards of conduct let each employee know what is expected of them.

The city and county of Denver is another organization that offers liberal training opportunities. Through its program, employees can obtain their commercial drivers license, says Lars Williams, operations superintendent. However, the public sector faces additional retention challenges.

Once drivers get their commercial drivers licenses, private haulers try to recruit them, he says. And, the added license does not always translate into intra-departmental promotional opportunities because all employment is handled through Denver's Career Service Authority, Williams says.

"We train our employees, but we don't necessarily [personally] hire our employees," he says. "I would like to see more loyalty go to the guys who have worked for us for a couple of years."

Being under the umbrella of the Denver Career Service Authority also makes it difficult for Williams to implement a driver incentive program. This is because an advantageous program for the waste management department might not be a good policy change for the parks and recreation department.

Another concern is an aging workforce, Williams says. He believes his turnover rate is not as problematic as the private sector's, but many of his drivers are nearing retirement, and younger replacements are becoming harder to find.

"Historically, with the benefit packages and steady employment the city and county offers, we've been able to keep our drivers," he says. "Our driving positions are filled by longer-term employees than in the private sector."

However, in the past few years, some of Williams' older drivers have retired and fewer younger drivers are available to fill the ranks, due in part to the booming economy.

"With the economy the way it is, the younger guys don't want stick around to become drivers," Williams observes. "For a long time, Denver's economy was depressed. Now, it's easier to go out and get a construction job. Very few guys want to work on the back of a rear loading trash truck when they can make the same amount of money doing something a lot easier."

Nestor agrees there aren't as many young drivers to fill the ranks. He points to current age restrictions on interstate truckers as part of the problem. Many potential drivers don't want to wait until they're 21 to secure the more lucrative interstate trucking positions when there are other options available at 18, he says.

However, if you provide competitive wages, maintain a safe fleet, train drivers properly and provide open communication channels, "you're going to have drivers who will jump through hoops for you," Nestor adds.

"Sure, drivers are jumping from company to company, but I think the actual driver shortage is just starting to hit and companies really need to start deciding to do something about it," he says. "Ultimately, you have to change corporate attitudes. You can talk about change until you're blue in the face, but the only way to really change behavior is through training. If there's a weak link, [your retention program] is going to fall apart."