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September 5, 2016 3:30 AM, EDT
Veterans’ Military Experience and Skills Create Ideal Match for Fleets Seeking Drivers Amid Shortage, Executives Say
Bulldog Hiway Express
Pictured is Ron "Shaggy" Edwards, who drove a 5-ton Army tractor with a tanker in the Middle East from 1989 to 1992 during Desert Storm. He has been driving for Bulldog Hiway Express for two years. Photo via Bulldog Hiway Express

This story appears in the Sept. 5 print edition of Transport Topics.

America’s long-running military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been a boon to the trucking industry, providing a supply of experienced men and women who can help alleviate the ongoing driver shortage.

The match between veterans and fleets has been recognized by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which has proposed extending the period in which veterans must obtain commercial driver licenses to a year from 90 days.

“It helps our veterans who deserve these types of benefits, and it’s a win for industry in terms of creating possible opportunities for new drivers,” said Tom Keane, director of FMCSA’s Office of Safety Programs. “We saw it as something that just made practical sense. We think it’s working very well. More than 13,000 separated military personnel have taken advantage of the skills test waiver [and receive their CDLs] since May 2012.”

On Aug. 19, FMCSA said it would conduct a three-year pilot project to allow truck drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 with military driving experience to cross state lines while driving a commercial vehicle. Federal regulations currently do not permit drivers younger than 21 to do so.

FMCSA hopes to have 200 members in the study group, most of whom would likely be reservists or National Guard members.

American Trucking Associations and its members support FMCSA’s efforts.

“It’s certainly beneficial to have a pool of drivers with experience driving and operating big, heavy vehicles,” said Sean Garney, director of safety policy at ATA.

Bulldog Hiway Express, Ryder System Inc. and YRC Freight are among the companies that have been leaders in hiring veterans.

YRC Worldwide and Ryder Supply Chain Solutions rank Nos. 5 and 13, respectively, on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

Bulldog, whose president is former ATA Chairman Phil Byrd Sr., has focused on hiring veterans for decades. Jerry Peterson, Bulldog’s safety director, for example, is a Navy veteran who quickly rose from driver to the company’s executive ranks.

“We saw the value of veterans early on,” said Byrd, whose North Charleston, South Carolina-based company employs 63 veterans among its 176 drivers. “They’re accustomed to stints away from home. That fits the longhaul portion of what we do very well.

“They’re also very used to taking, understanding and carrying out instructions,” Byrd said, adding they’re “very detailed, which brings about very tangible benefits in the way of customer satisfaction.”

Veterans also are not “abusive” to equipment, he said. “They maintain the equipment. They do pre-trip inspections by the script. They are operating safely on the highways, complying with the regulations.

“All of those things can be tied back to their military training,” Byrd said.

Bulldog driver Ron “Shaggy” Edwards, who drove a 5-ton Army tractor with a 5,000-gallon tanker in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm, certainly concurs.

“I learned a lot of good habits in the military that have helped me in the civilian world, like keeping your truck maintained and clean, and doing things legally and by the book,” Edwards said. “Military drivers make the best drivers.”

Edwards, who grew up in coal mining country in southwest Virginia near the Kentucky border, first drove a pickup before he was a teenager. “I’ve been a gearhead all my life,” he said. “Four of my uncles had coal trucks. That’s what I wanted to do since I was a kid.”

He said his dad’s oldest brother, Danny, drove a truck in the military. “His stories about driving in Korea were one of the reasons I went into the military as a truck driver,” Edwards said. “Normally in my job, I sleep in my truck. We slept in tents or our trucks during Desert Storm.

“When you get used to sleeping in an Army truck, these trucks are like the Hyatt,” he said. “Being on the road isn’t quite like being at home, but it’s miles ahead of what we did in the military.”

Patrick Pendergast, Ryder’s director of talent acquisition, said the Miami-based company has switched its military recruitment efforts in recent years from career fairs and Veterans Administration offices to on-base transition summits every month or so.

“We meet with individuals who are anywhere from three to six months away from leaving the military,” said Pendergast, adding that in 2015, Ryder hired 1,200 veterans — most of them drivers — a 57% increase from 2014. “It takes longer to see the results of those investments, but planting those seeds is a key to why we’re seeing the results we’re seeing now. Candidates will have a job offer from Ryder before they leave the military.”

When veterans join Ryder, they are matched with a fellow ex- military member in the company to ease the transition. For those veterans who didn’t drive in the military but want to drive for Ryder, the company will pay for their driver training.

Sean Saunders, senior vice president for human resources and safety at YRC Freight, said the company, based in Overland Park, Kansas, has partnered with 10 veterans organizations.

“We started by hiring recruiters with military backgrounds,” said Saunders, noting that YRC has doubled its number of veterans — 90% of whom are drivers — to 12% of its workforce over the past 18 months. YRC hopes to reach 25% by 2018.

“Every six weeks, we attend a recruitment event on a base,” he said. “We target veterans who have driven in the military,” Saunders said, noting that at the events, YRC emphasizes that it will help potential hires obtain their CDLs. “When you look at the military culture and how that aligns with YRC’s core values of safety, respect, integrity, hard work, it’s a natural fit.”

YRC driver Paul Esquivel drove an Army truck in South Korea transporting missile launchers.

“The Army and YRC Freight have the same focus on safety and training,” said the 27-year-old Esquivel, who served seven years and is now in the National Guard. “I learned a lot in the Army [such as] being alert for blind spots and maintaining your lane. YRC tweaked some things and got me ready for the road.”

Clint Jones, another YRC driver, served four years in the Marines, including a 2011-2012 tour of duty in Afghanistan. Jones delivered supplies to frontline infantry and took down and transported their facilities when the mission was completed.

“There was not a big learning curve for me as I had many of the skills I needed [when I was hired by YRC],” said the 25-year-old Jones, who had worked in an oil field before serving in the Marines during 2009-2013.

“We know these are well-trained drivers,” Keane said. “Where we can facilitate and make more efficient that transition [to civilian life] for our military members, we’re all for it. I can’t guarantee that there won’t be people who will oppose the under-21 military pilot, but once we show them how rigorous the military training program is … we’re hoping that it allays any fears about safety.”

Bulldog’s Byrd has advice for the rest of the industry when it comes to veterans.

“I would tell every fleet that, if you can hire veterans, you bring good people into your workforce that understand what we do as an industry and have more staying power than people that haven’t had that same background,” he said.

While Edwards is twice the age of some recent veterans, they share a bond.

“We have a lot in common even though we drove at different times,” he said. “One thing we have spoken about that seems to be universal, regardless of generation, seems to be pride in our individual trucks. From cleanliness to little personal touches, that carries over into civilian life on the road.”

Esquivel agreed. “There is a real common bond among all of us,” he said.