The awards ceremony and panel discussion for the HDT Truck Fleet Innovators is a highlight of HDTX. - Photo: Tavits Photography for HDTX

The awards ceremony and panel discussion for the HDT Truck Fleet Innovators is a highlight of HDTX.

Photo: Tavits Photography for HDTX

What are some of the most innovative fleets in the country doing about the driver shortage? At the Heavy Duty Trucking Exchange event in Scottsdale, Arizona, Heavy Duty Trucking Editor In Chief Deborah Lockridge sat down with HDT’s 2020 and 2021 Truck Fleet Innovators to discuss hot topics and trends in trucking and fleet operations, including how to recruit and retain drivers and other vital employees.

HDT's Truck Fleet Innovators are honored each year at HDTX, an intimate industry meeting focusing on networking and relationships. Because the pandemic caused last year's event to be cancelled, this year's event featured seven panelists, pulled from both 2020 and 2021. Following the award ceremony, Lockridge, as well as Ken Kelley, vice president of Innovators sponsor ConMet, dove into the driver issue.

The Struggle to Fill Seats

Lockridge’s first question focused on the ongoing battle to find drivers, make sure they're safe drivers, and to keep them. She started with Chris Woody, whose fleet has only one empty truck at the moment out of 143.

Chris Woody, director of safety for M&W Transportation: "We learned that there are a lot of qualified drivers out there. But that doesn’t mean they’re right for your company.

"I’m an evangelist when it comes to safety. We’ve taken safety and made it the one, central, force in our business that we will stick to our guns for, no matter what. And in practice, that means we started hiring like-minded, smart divers — and holding out to find those drivers, no matter how many empty trucks we have.

"It was a struggle at the beginning. There’s a lot of pressure on you when you have empty trucks sitting in the yard. But, slowly but surely, we started filling the seats with the kind of drivers that we wanted. People who are on the same page with us on safety and have values that are in line with our corporate culture. And we rewarded them by making sure we gave them everything, and exactly what we promised them when we hired them. Our attitude is we give them very few chances to get mad at us. We chose the right ones first. Honored our promises. And they have stayed with us."

Marc Kramer, chairman of Soar Transportation: "Drivers are a struggle that we face every single day. And as the problem got worse, we started looking at our operations. We’re an over-the-road fleet with a 900-mile average length of haul. And we realized that model put a lot of pressure on the quality of life for our drivers. It’s an incredibly difficult space for them to operate in. And they have a real need for meaningful home time.

"So, we started to remake our business model. We started moving toward a more regionalized freight network and tried to created customer lanes with more dedicated routes."

And, he noted, drivers aren't the only employees where some creative restructuring can help.

"On the people side of the equation, we started surveying our employees three times per year and realized that burnout was getting to be a real problem. I don’t know if this was partly due to COVID, but it was a big enough concern that we reduced our weekly work schedule for our employees by one hour per day. Again, to give people more meaningful home time. We cautioned them that if we saw a falloff in productivity, we’d return to the old schedule. But that didn’t happen. There was no falloff in productivity, and we got a notable uptick in morale as a result."

Shaun Sadler, senior vice president of equipment for U.S. Xpress: When asked about the company's new Variant digital fleet, which is growing, he explained, "We moved from a typical truckload application to one that is more technology-driven. Our goal was to produce better service for our customers while making life easier for our drivers. Basically, we wanted a seamless operation across the board.

"One way we attract and recruit drivers is by guaranteeing they’ll have premium equipment. We spec APUs, for example. And that has proven to be very attractive to potential driver hires. Our drivers love the productivity they get from the equipment we give them."

Jonathan Koralewski, fleet services training manager for Estes Express Lines: "We face shortages just like everyone else. Right now, we need 1,000 drivers and 100 technicians — that’s another shortage we struggle with.

"One tool that has helped has been giving referral bonuses to our employees when they recommend someone that we end up hiring.

"We’ve also realized that we need to start promoting from within the company. So, we’re offering training to our employees — people who like the company and we feel will stay a long time. We want to move those people up into bigger and better jobs. We’re really trying two tracks here: Bringing in new people, but also growing our employees."

Todd Gooch, vice president of transportation at Tribe Transportation: "We’ve found that the best referral is from a happy driver. We’ve made a cultural change in how we treat our drivers. We’ve implemented an open floor. We don’t segregate drivers from the rest of our company. They have a badge, just like everyone else. And they can go into the office and talk to their driver manager. They are employees and part of our company, and they are treated that way. We are a service company. We service our customers. But we also service our drivers. If we don’t take care of them, someone else will."

Are Younger Drivers a Solution?

Given the unrelenting pressure to find drivers today, Kelley asked the panel if younger truck drivers would be a viable solution to the shortage.

Ken Johnson, CEO of Leonard’s Expresss: I think we can start with younger people and build a better driver. A few years ago, we had empty office space in our building when a driver school in our area came up for sale. We felt that we could buy that school, incorporate it into our business and use as a foundation to find new drivers.

"It’s been 10 years now, and that has worked out very well for us. Not every driver that goes through the school is hired by us. But we like to offer jobs to as many of them as we can — provided we feel they’re a good fit for our company. The instructors are former drivers for our company. So, they know what we’re looking for in terms of driver talent. But regardless of where the graduates go, we make sure they understand that they’re not just getting a CDL — they’re getting a whole new career.

"I made my first cross-country trip in a truck when I was 18 years old. And I hope that soon New York’s new governor will sign a new law allowing 18-year-old drivers to operate in the state. I feel that with the right training, younger drivers are just as capable of doing this job properly as older drivers. And we need to bring younger people in as drivers before they find other careers."

Gooch: It’s hard for young drivers. They can’t get behind the wheel until they’re 23 or 25 years old. But they need two years of experience to land a good job. By the time they’re 26 or 27, they’ve found another career. Plus, the country is changing. Drivers have a lifestyle that many young people are not looking for — getting home once a day once a month, for example. But, younger people do like the newer trucks. We’re trying to engage with middle schools and high schools. We’re hoping that we can turn a 12-year-old kid onto trucking — give them the desire to be a truck driver when they grow up."

Kramer: We’ve been working with our healthcare provider to provide free biometrics testing to raise health awareness among our employees. And that worked well, so we reached out to our insurance provider to see if they’re be interested in establishing a junior driver program on a limited basis to gather some data of the safety aspect of younger drivers. And so far it’s gone well. In fact, I have some concerns about the complacency we find with older drivers. We see the highest frequency of accidents tend to come with drivers with around eight years of experience. I think that has to do with a combination of overconfidence and complacency."

Woody: "There’s an ongoing tension with drivers now that I think is very real. They look back at the way things used to be done. And things are not like that now. And they lament those days. I think there’s a real resentment older drivers have that this thing they love has evolved with technology and regulation into something else — when all they ever wanted to do was move freight up and down the road."

Left to right: Jonathan Koralewski, Chris Woody, Marc Kramer, Shaun Sadler, Ken Johnson, Dan Brewer, Todd Gooch - Photo: Tavits Photography for HDTX

Left to right: Jonathan Koralewski, Chris Woody, Marc Kramer, Shaun Sadler, Ken Johnson, Dan Brewer, Todd Gooch

Photo: Tavits Photography for HDTX

2021 HDT Fleet Innovators 

Matt Handte, executive vice president, Tribe Transportation

Accepting on his behalf: Todd Gooch, Vice President of Transportation

The Georgia-based temperature-controlled carrier stood out for several reasons, including its rapid growth, and for being an early adopter of some of the latest equipment and technologies. Handte works closely with OEs and vendors to help test new products before many industry professionals have even heard of them.

Ken Johnson, CEO, Leonard’s Express

The technology and tools that Johnson is using today would no doubt seem like science fiction if his dad had seen them in 1972 when he started K.J. Transportation, a predecessor to Leonard’s Express. But at the Farmington, New York-based company, Johnson emphasizes that it’s not the technology itself that’s key. “These things are just tools,” he said. “And it’s how you treat, train, and develop the people who use them that’s most important.”

Marc Kramer, chairman, Soar Transportation

Kramer was recognized for his commitment to his people. He didn’t grow up in trucking. As a partner at a private equity fund, he spent two decades investing in motor carriers, private fleets, and other transportation companies. Eventually, however, Kramer decided he’d rather be in the trucking business instead of just investing in it. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, he has created a company that’s a significant player in the temperature-controlled sector.

Shaun Sadler, senior VP of equipment, U.S. Xpress

Sadler, like Marc Kramer, came to trucking recently, bringing what he learned as a leader in the Marines to his role at U.S. Xpress. (He ended his Marine career in 2013 as a colonel, the commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 39.) And this 2021 award is not the first time HDT has honored someone from U.S. Xpress, including its founders our very first year. But the digital transformation the company is going through now is amazing. Whether it’s data-driven specs and predictive maintenance, the latest safety equipment, electric and hydrogen trucks, autonomous trucks, or the company’s new Variant “digital fleet,” he’s a part of what he calls a technology infusion at the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based company.

2020 HDT Fleet Innovators 

Mike Palmer, vice president of fleet service, Estes Express Lines 
Accepting on his behalf: Jonathan Koralewski, Fleet Services, Training Manager

Palmer is one of those people who’s never happy with “good enough.” He has aggressively working with industry vendors on a quest to build a better mousetrap for the Virginia-based less-than-truckload carrier. This effort includes bringing in a whole host of new and innovative products and technologies, from a new type of larger liftgate to a pup trailer that can fit six more pallets than a standard pup trailer – a 25% increase.

Darrel Wilson, CEO, Wilson Logistics

Accepting on his behalf: Dan Brewer, vice president of IT 

Wilson bought his first truck in 1980, when he was 20 years old. Ten years later, he had 15 trucks. Today, the Missouri-based fleet has more than 1,000 trucks and offices in four states. Wilson Logistics has been testing a couple of really interesting technologies, including a cloud-based TMS that helps link shippers, carriers and brokers, as well as the Locomation autonomous relay convoy.

Chris Woody, director of safety, M&W Transportation

Chris Woody stands out for his passion for safety. M&W was an early adopter of in-cab cameras, but it’s how they’ve used those as a tool to create a culture not only of safety but also one that keeps drivers -- that’s truly impressive. And, Lockridge added, the Nashville based truckload carrier M&W Logistics, is an example of how you don’t have to be a huge fleet to be innovative.

Originally posted on Trucking Info

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