America’s transportation industry is reeling from record-high turnover rates. The problem has drawn particularly intense scrutiny in heavy-duty trucking circles, where fleet operators are searching for new ways to reduce the high cost of constantly recruiting and onboarding new drivers.
From these efforts can be drawn several useful insights for vocational fleets that struggle to keep their best driver-employees on the payroll. At the heart of the matter is the culture in which new hires are expected to thrive. If they feel unsafe, uneasy, or underappreciated, they will take their talents elsewhere.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t found very many companies that recognize the importance of culture,” said Michael Meredith, an industry expert and consultant with Glostone Trucking Solutions. “That driver is going to learn your culture whether management likes it or not. Disrespect will come out really quickly.”
Work Truck reached out to Meredith, Gary Johnson of Lytx, and Corporate Claims Management’s Rich Tillotson to get practical advice for fleets seeking proven methods for improving retention.
1. Attack Your Culture
The best corporate culture is one built on respect, Meredith said, and if yours is not, the nature of the work will accelerate the manifestation of negativity.
“Drivers have a lot of time to think. If your dispatcher doesn’t like drivers, for example, that will come out during the day. The dispatcher will say something, and the driver will ponder that conversation all day long. And by the end of the day, what may have been a very small, innocuous comment will be huge,” Meredith said. “After a while, that repetition of thinking will lead the driver to believe this is not the company for him or her.”
How do you know whether a sense of mutual respect pervades every level of your organization? Just ask, Meredith said, and do so at regular intervals following each new hire. “Ask your drivers questions at 30 days, 60 days, 90, 120, and 180. Within that first 180 days, most drivers will make the decision as to whether they want to work there,” he said.
In the service industry, where drivers interact with customers face-to-face, disrespect can become contagious and undermine the company’s values, Johnson said. He urged fleet operators to consider their employees’ values just as they expect employees to understand the company’s.
To do so, owners and managers may have to devote more time and resources to driver-employee conversations and evaluations than they are accustomed to.
“I think you really need to take the approach of ‘How can I invest in my employees? How is it that I can make sure I understand what each individual can provide to make my company successful?’” said Johnson, who serves as Lytx’s director of risk and compliance management. “Be honest with employees and recruits. What can we do to really engage them? They want to work with a successful company. How do we keep the door open to achieve that?”
2. Break the Pattern
As vice president of sales and business development at CCM, Tillotson has worked with many fleets dedicated to a wide variety of industries. But even he was surprised to learn a new client was grappling with a turnover rate that fluctuated between 200% and 300%. A driver could be recruited, hired, and onboarded in January and replaced at least twice by December.
“How can you invest in training and substantial benefits with that turnover?” Tillotson asked. “The initial setup cost alone means it’s not economically feasible from a P&L perspective. These guys are chasing new drivers and afraid to spend money on current drivers. Why don’t you try to break that pattern?”
Tillotson believes a goal of 80% retention is not only reasonable but achievable. It starts by stepping outside one’s comfort zone. For most owners and operators, the nuts and bolts of fleet management are easier to fully grasp and invest in than retention. “The operational budget comes first — trucks and tires. On the personnel side, it’s a science they’re not applying themselves to,” he explained.
Those who apply this concept are rewarded not only with longer-tenured drivers but enhanced visibility into the employment and customer-service experience their fleet delivers, Meredith said. In addition to catching up with new hires at 30- and 60-day intervals, he wants owners and managers to continue the cultural conversation even after a driver-employee decides to quit.
“Use the exit interview to find out why they’re leaving,” he said. “‘Could we have done something different?’ You have got to build a culture that is focused not on recruitment but retention.”
3. Make Safety a Priority
Fleets that suffer high accident rates pay a steep price. Serious collisions can cause injury or death. If a driver-employee is at fault, costly claims and escalating insurance rates can result. Damaged vehicles can’t produce revenue until they are repaired and refleeted.
The best way to avoid collisions is to drive safely. The best way to assess skills and monitor on-road behavior — short of assigning a supervisor to every vehicle — is with telematics. And as Johnson of Lytx pointed out, tracking such metrics as harsh acceleration, braking, and cornering need not be a strictly punitive pursuit. Good drivers deserve recognition just as surely as bad drivers require remediation, and telematics delivers the immediate performance feedback younger driver-employees crave.
Better yet, Johnson said, investing in safety training and technology sends a highly encouraging message to more experienced drivers who understand that buttoning up fleet operations pays dividends for everyone.
“Older generations understand that lower accident rates do mean better bottom lines, and the more successful my company is, the more I will receive in pay, bonuses, and better equipment. That is true in any industry, but it really comes into play in a transportation model.”
Remediation is a “black and white” issue for service fleets, Tillotson added: Whether by the standards of the DMV or an internal fleet safety program, each driver is either within their points limit or not. Motor vehicle records must be checked and rechecked. Drivers should be required to self-report moving violations that could affect their status.
Once again invoking the 80/20 rule, Tillotson said, “You want to keep at least 80% of your drivers within your parameters for being hired and retained. Give the guys who are on the cusp of the other 20% enough training, support, and counseling so they don’t need to be released. That’s how safety plays into retention.”
4. Diversify Your Workforce
A more diverse workforce could be the answer to the other pressing personnel issue facing the trucking segment: a declining number of qualified candidates.
“I think they need to start looking at women, minorities, and veterans because they need a wider base to recruit from,” Meredith said. “And in the work truck area, millennials are ripe for the picking. Millennials have no interest at all in going over the road.”
But Meredith warned that fleets that get younger must also get wiser. Owners and managers who expect driver-employees to do their work, go home, and cash their paychecks may have to adjust to a generation that thrives on constant feedback.
“There are ways you have to deal with millennials. One thing I’ve learned is they want to be recognized no matter what. If they back a trailer up to a dock, they want someone to come out and say, ‘Boy, you did a great job.’”
Johnson agreed, adding, “Everybody wants a pat on the back, but today’s generation really wants to know how they’re doing and what they can do to be successful. They want to feel invested, that they’re part of the company and that they’re making a difference.”
5. Go the Extra Mile
A number of CCM’s clients operate executive fleets, and Tillotson pointed out that those vehicles are commonly equipped with creature comforts that are largely absent from vocational fleets. Most pharmaceutical sales representatives expect to be given — or can earn — the “extras” they know will improve whatever part of their workday is spent behind the wheel. Most pest control technicians are lucky to get Bluetooth.
“The selector process for commercial vehicles is so underutilized,” Tillotson said. “People who get company cars are attracted to and appreciative of Sirius and leather upholstery, yet on trucks and vans, it’s not even entertained. I have yet to see a plumbing company’s van with satellite radio in it.”
Even a small investment to the driver’s benefit can go a long way, he added, generating the kind of “grassroots” support for an employer that resonates during work hours and beyond.
“When they go home, what do you want them to tell their friends and family about your vehicle? Do you want them to say, ‘It’s a piece-of-crap van loaded with stinky plumbing equipment’? No. You want them to say, ‘It’s nice. I have Sirius. I listen to Howard Stern.’”