US trucking firms look to ‘cultivate’ their own drivers

US trucking firms look to ‘cultivate’ their own drivers

 

A truck travels in the United States.

A carrier with 100 drivers and an 87 percent turnover rate could spend nearly $500,000 on recruitment and replacement annually. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

US trucking companies struggling to recruit drivers increasingly are targeting new drivers, offering training and apprenticeship programs aimed at growing a new generation of truckers. In many cases, they’re finding the best way to recruit drivers is to cultivate their own.

Carriers are focusing on truck driver development, not just recruitment, to gain greater control over the stability and quality of their workforce and capacity and reduce driver turnover rates. At the same time, trucking firms are raising driver pay, sometimes multiple times in a year.

On Dec. 3, truckload carrier Maverick Transportation opened a driving school, Maverick Driving Academy, in North Little Rock, Arkansas. “Our new school is a way to add to the driver education that has already been a vital part of our growth and success,” said John Culp, Maverick’s president. “We are committed to growing our company ‘The Maverick Way.’”

That’s “The Maverick Way” as opposed to someone else’s way. There’s growing belief that taking control of driver training, rather than recruiting drivers from other carriers or relying on outside training programs, can help carriers mold drivers to do their job as they’d like them to and hopefully keep those drivers rather than watching them jump to another company.

For Werner Enterprises, “Driver tenure is the biggest metric of financial success,” president and CEO Derek Leathers said at a recent transportation conference. “If that’s the case, you have to redeploy your assets to improve tenure within your fleet. We now graduate more drivers than anyone in the United States” through Werner’s own driver schools and apprenticeships.

“If I acquire a trucking company, I’ll get a few hundred drivers at one time,” Leathers said. Building a driver training school, however, allows Werner to employ its own “success metrics” and “train drivers for the actual jobs they were going to perform.” The result, he said, “was a 20-year low in driver turnover at a time when the driver market has never been tighter.”  

Truckload carriers are trying to build a more stable workforce and reduce turnover rates that cost them untold millions of dollars a year. The average driver turnover rate at large truckload carriers (those with more than $30 million in annual revenue) was 87 percent in the third quarter, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), but had been 98 percent in the second quarter.

And 87 percent is not a turnover rate that will inspire complacency. A carrier with 100 drivers and an 87 percent turnover rate could spend nearly $500,000 on recruitment and replacement annually, assuming the cost of hiring a driver is about $5,000 — and that's a lowball estimate.  

Rebuilding a trade through apprenticeships

Less-than-truckload (LTL) carriers historically have had much lower turnover rates. The ATA average LTL turnover rate dropped to 10 percent in the third quarter from 14 percent in the previous quarter, ATA said. “Seeing this kind of jump in the LTL market tells me that this sector is struggling with drivers more than in the recent past,” ATA chief economist Bob Costello said.

Chuck Hammel, founder and CEO of Pitt Ohio Group, agrees. “The industry hasn’t really gotten its arms around how we’re going to get new drivers,” Hammel told JOC.com recently. “I will argue that we’ve never had a driver shortage as much as we’ve had a pay shortage.” That’s beginning to change, but simply throwing money at the problem won’t solve it.

Hammel sees a need to bring a new generation of recruits into trucking, and his company, which has LTL, truckload, and package operations, is doing that through an apprenticeship program. “We’re going into the high schools and getting seniors that choose not to go to college, young men and women, and putting them in a three-year program,” he said.

“Year one, you make $17 an hour and you get full healthcare benefits, full vacation and sick days, just like everybody else. Year two, you get $18 an hour; year three, $19 an hour; and after that, you’re ready for your CDL [commercial driver's license],” Hammel said. “As a parent, you always want your kid to [go to] college. But we have to stop putting a big L across their forehead if they don’t go to college.”

That vocational style apprenticeship gives young employees an opportunity to start a career in trucking right out of high school, even though they can't drive a Class 8 truck in interstate commerce until they turn 21. Many states allow 18-year-olds to drive trucks in intrastate commerce, but those opportunities are limited at an interstate carrier.

The ATA backs apprenticeship programs that would allow 18-year-olds to drive trucks, with supervision. "The ability to have growth in the transportation environment is absolutely essential,” as demand is expected to continue to grow during the next decade, Chris Spear, ATA president and CEO, said at the NASSTRAC Shipper Conference in Orlando last April.

Other groups, including the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, have opposed the concept, and not all trucking executives think giving an 18-year-old the keys to a Class 8 tractor-trailer is a good idea. Apprenticeships such as Pitt Ohio's, which start young employees out on the loading dock and gradually introduce them to driving through vans and smaller trucks, offer another option.

Most importantly, apprenticeships aim to bring new talent to an aging industry. "What’s our industry doing to bring people in?" Hammel asked. "We’re offering $10,000 bonuses and stealing people from other companies. That's rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Just as in the truckload sector, many veteran truck drivers at LTL carriers are approaching retirement, Hammel said, and there aren’t enough younger people entering the business to replace them. In the 1980s, Pittsburgh-based Pitt Ohio recruited many truck drivers from steel mills as they closed. “They were happy to get a full-time job with benefits,” Hammel said.

But the steel mills have been closed a long time, he said. “So where are we getting drivers from now? We’re not getting them from H.H. Gregg or retailers like that when they close, so you have to cultivate your own. The building trades are having the same problem, and they’re starting to do the same thing. Somebody has to start paying attention to our young people.”

This is the third in a series of articles on trucking's driver problem.

See also:

Part 1: US truck driver pay to rise 'more than normal' in 2019.

Part 2: Small US trucking firms winning battle for drivers.

Part 4: Shippers, not just US truckers, own driver shortage.

Part 5: Analysis: 'Blue-collar' crisis plagues US trucking.

 

Video: FMCSA data points to 'huge shift' in trucking market.

 

Contact William B. Cassidy at bill.cassidy@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @willbcassidy.