I’m sure you’ve read that the driver shortage is becoming more and more critical. Recently, the American Trucking Association (ATA) stated we now need 90,000 new drivers a year. One reason is attrition — drivers are retiring and leaving the driver work force and aren’t being replaced. Another is demand — the need for additional freight capacity has surged 8% month over month.
Forget about the big picture, you probably know the problem all too well from your own hiring needs.
Major carriers are now offering higher wages and enhanced signing bonuses to attract drivers. But this doesn’t solve the problem — it only takes one driver away from another carrier or vocational business that has similar personnel needs.
The Age Debate
One of the largest national debates on the issue concerns whether to lower the minimum age to drive a truck, which would allow employers access to the 18- to 21-year-old talent pool.
Those in favor reference that this age group is old enough to serve our country and fight our conflicts. During that service some are taught to drive and operate light- , medium- , and heavy-duty wheeled vehicles, as well as tracked vehicles — some of them massive and more complicated than our Class 7 and 8 truck and tractors. If that’s the case, why can’t they be used in our commerce to drive commercially?
One bill, the WHEEL Act, would modify eligibility requirements for obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL). It hasn’t yet reached committee stage in Congress, and is said to have a slim chance of passing.
However, on July 5, the U.S. Department of Transportation recognized the irony of military service when it announced a pilot program to permit 18- to 20-year-olds with the U.S. military equivalent of a CDL to operate large trucks in interstate commerce.
If all goes well, this program will expand the driver talent pool to include a select, qualified few — while allowing these younger veterans to transition into well-paying jobs.
What You Can Do
I believe the driving age for truck drivers will be lowered, eventually, but we could grow old and gray before we see any positive results from the government’s actions.
In the meantime, there are some proactive steps you can take today to address the driver shortage problem you might be facing within your own company.
Implement an Apprentice Program
There was a time when many blue-collar jobs required an apprenticeship to progressively learn the job under the tutelage of a master craftsman. These days, not everyone wants or needs to go to college, and the vocational jobs geared toward apprenticeships pay well.
This stepping stone may be growing again. The Commercial Vehicle Training Association (CVTA), the largest trade association of truck driving schools, recently gained approval to be listed as a registered apprentice program for professional truck drivers with approval from the U.S. Department of Labor.
In addition to taking advantage of national initiatives such as the one offered by CVTA, fleet operators might consider starting an apprentice program internally.
One way to start is by sponsoring programs at your local vocational or technical school. These programs could be geared to graduate trained drivers once they reach the age of 21.
To always be legal on our roads and highways, don’t forget to have your qualified CDL operator drive the apprentice to and from the training area.
Hire from Within
I have heard fleet operators say, “I only operate 10 or 20 trucks — I don’t have any extra manpower.” You do have job positions that don’t require driving, don’t you?
For example, who loads your trucks? Some of your warehouse employees might like a crack at a driving job, but have no training. Have one of your qualified drivers give these motivated employees an hour or two of training a week.
I am willing to bet that after 50 hours or fewer, they would be able to pass the walk around and driving part of the CDL exam. But if you think they wouldn’t pass the written exam, then have one of your office staff teach them this part of the test.
If you consider this training just more dollars and lost time, build the expense into your operating cost — charge enough for your goods and services. Support these people and their families, and you will have less driver turnover and more loyal employees.
In-house training does come along with logistics challenges, such as having a safe space to train behind the wheel.
Get creative: There are many warehouses and industrial complexes that have substantial parking lots. How about using a sports facilities parking lot when no events are planned? Many of these areas are lit at night and striped. Of course, be sure to ask the owner or landlord for permission first.
Encourage Women and Minorities
In my almost 50 years in many facets of transportation, of all the drivers I have encountered, fewer than 5% are women. The trucking business is far too male-centric, from the drivers and the supervisors to the back-office staff. Why don’t we recruit more women? They make just as good drivers as men.
Recruit where a higher percentage of women and minorities will attend, such as job fairs. Put up a banner that promotes your company’s inclusive hiring practices.
When a woman or minority approaches and says they have no experience, your response should be, “We’ll train you.” If a woman says she is intimated about driving big rigs, your response should be, “We’ll not only train you, but we will start you out in our apprentice program.”
Tell her that she can start on straight trucks. Then, if comfortable, she can progress to tractor trailers. Make it clear that you want her as an employee, and that you will help her to be successful. If you engage with female and minority candidates, your potential pool of drivers increases exponentially.
Motivate Your Team to Recruit
Are you really plumbing the depths of the total talent pool available to you? A little “trust but verify” attitude might be applied to your hiring practices and to your HR department.
Motivate your own human resources personnel and others within your company to recruit from the talent pool. Pay your own employees a finder’s fee for every recruit they bring on board.
Increase Community Visibility
Perform more company-sponsored activities within the communities you serve, not just where your head offices are located. Hold open houses at your terminals. Invite the public and cook up some barbeque.
Have your equipment cleaned and presentable. Add a banner to your newest tractor and trailer that says “You could have a career with us and earn (fill in the appropriate salary) per year to start.”
Treat this like a marketing and sales challenge, not a human resources challenge.
Do the Work
So, what am I really recommending? Take a more proactive and far reaching approach to the driver shortage problem. Spread your resources out to engage better with the extended pool of available talent.
The talent is out there — you just need to be more proactive in enlarging the size of the driver pool.
About the Author
Les Smart is president of Smart Fleet Management, a small and medium fleet consulting company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.