While a great deal of attention has been given to freight rates and availability, another issue is also at the forefront for carrier management: Hiring and retaining enough drivers to keep the fleet running is an activity that never stops.
Like freight, however, the availability of drivers can vary based on economic and other factors. Doug Drier knows the cycle well.
“This industry, it’s just crazy,” he said. “A year ago, carriers were calling almost daily, looking for drivers. Fast forward 12 months to today — nobody wants drivers, and the pendulum swings.”
Drier is the founder and CEO of Right Turn Recruiting, a driver procurement firm that has supported carrier recruiting efforts for 15 years.
“Last September, I’d say we started kind of really noticing, OK, this is finally going in a negative direction,” he explained. “So, it’s been about nine months of not-so-good recruiting weather for us.”
The upside? When things are “not so good” for Drier, they’re good for carriers. When driver applications are plentiful, many carriers are more able to handle their recruiting needs through in-house efforts.
Recruiting success is often a consolation for slow freight and lower rates. In the spot freight market, owner-operators who are no longer seeing the profits they did when rates were high are surrendering their authority and either parking or selling their trucks while they look for jobs as company drivers.
At the same time, company drivers who experience a decline in miles or the loss of a favorite run start thinking things might be better at another carrier.
Whatever the market for drivers, most business analysts would agree that it makes sense for carriers to hold on to the drivers they have. Unfortunately, recruiting advertising, sign-on bonuses, and other factors have created an environment where drivers are bombarded with incentives to leave their current carrier and move to another company.
“This industry has made it incredibly easy to hire drivers from one company to the next,” Drier said. “You can be running for Company A today and Company B by Friday in almost any market. It’s just the littlest thing that can get a driver to leave.”
In such an environment, getting drivers to stay with a carrier can be difficult. Although drivers changing jobs is the basis of his business, clients often ask Drier for advice about retaining drivers. This is a task for which he’s uniquely qualified: Drier’s recruiting team visits with drivers every day, and those drivers usually share their reasons for wanting to move away from a company.
“The big thing is just to communicate with your drivers (about) the current state of the market,” Drier said. “I don’t think carriers do a good enough job of speaking about the current environment we’re in, and how it’s so different from six months ago or 12 months ago.
“Drivers need to know, ‘(The problem is) not just us. Our competitors and everybody else are seeing a huge drop in rates, which are 70 to 75 cents lower today than they were last year at this time. That’s not just us. That’s everybody,’” he continued.
While some drivers read industry publications and stay up to date on current conditions, most are more concerned with their day-to-day jobs. The first indication something is amiss might be a spouse complaining about smaller paychecks. That’s where a bit of carrier communication with drivers can make a big difference.
In weekly staff meetings Drier holds with his team of recruiters, they discuss what drivers are saying.
“There are plenty of drivers out there that are completely blind to the market and environment we’re in,” he said. “They just think, ‘Wow, my paychecks aren’t as big anymore. I gotta get out of here!’”
While drivers may be looking for new jobs right now, there aren’t as many to be found. Many carriers use times when there’s an abundance of drivers applying as a chance to improve the quality of their driver group, and there may be several drivers competing for a single spot.
“Almost everybody we work with has taken that approach,” Drier said. “Without question, carriers are tightening up their hiring guidelines. The companies that were taking six months (experience) drivers now want one year; the companies that were taking (drivers with) three tickets now will only take two; the companies that would take (drivers who have had) 10 jobs in three years now will only look at five.”
Such improvements can help bolster a carrier’s safety record and could impact insurance rates.
“It’s a common theme,” Drier said. “(Retaining the best drivers is) the one easy adjustment to make to strengthen the overall quality of your fleet.”
Sign-on bonuses are still being advertised, but some carriers have either suspended those programs or reduced the amounts offered. Doing this reduces the cost of recruiting as well as the total cost of driver employment without reducing per-mile or other pay.
“A lot of companies have eliminated those,” Drier remarked. “You still see them advertised, but I haven’t seen a huge sign on bonus offered this month.”
Reductions in pay are, obviously, a reluctant effort on the part of a carrier to hold its losses to a minimum. Obviously, though, reducing pay can be detrimental to both recruiting and retention. After the recession of 2008-2009, some carriers found it difficult to replace drivers lost to pay reductions.
“I know of only been one carrier that’s decreased pay,” Drier said.” I think everybody else is hanging on as tight as possible to not have to do that. But I think some are getting close.”
Perhaps the best way to retain drivers is to simply work to preserve those personal relationships.
“Drivers don’t leave a company,” Drier explained. “My feeling is, they leave a dispatcher. They leave a maintenance person or a manager. It’s often not the name on the side of the truck; it is ultimately the people they work with. And in any market, (a good driver) is going to have a pretty easy time getting a new job somewhere else.”
When drivers are hard to come by, Drier gets more business from carriers as they work to keep trucks rolling. But as he and his team remain ready to help carriers find more drivers, he knows the most efficient policy is to keep the drivers they already have.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.