Special to Transport Topics
Back-Office Job Demand Remains Steady at Fleets
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With a lingering labor shortage affecting drivers for several years, fleets are finding that there’s a steady growth of job demand for operational support roles usually known as back-office jobs.
While truck drivers are critical to motor carrier companies, nothing can run efficiently without the employees behind the scenes keeping operations flowing smoothly — dispatchers, dockworkers, platform supervisors and the like. In addition to customer-facing roles, tech support is an essential area that keeps the machine humming.
Another job category in the back office that is in demand is IT, according to Richard Armstrong, chairman of Armstrong & Associates, a third-party logistics consulting firm. “I’m sure that more and more people being hired in the back office will be college graduates,” he said.
“All of these roles are difficult to fill at brokerages and trucking companies; they are always behind the hiring curve because of how variable the market really is. The challenge becomes getting good people in and getting them trained effectively and quickly for roles that are not revenue generating,” said Ryan Schreiber, chief growth officer with Metafora, a technology consultant specializing in transportation and logistics, based in Chicago.
“Companies are looking to save money. The back office is often seen as a cost center, and largely it is. Additionally, there are typically a number of upstream issues in sales and operations that create issues in the back office. However, it is also mission critical. Without timely and accurate billing, trucking and logistics companies face serious cash flow issues,” added Schreiber.
Fortunately, many companies are reporting more stability in hiring these vital back-office workers. Sarah Statlander, vice president of human capital and talent acquisition at Yellow, said the LTL carrier has not seen much of a downturn in hiring in operations leadership roles, either during or since the pandemic.
Greg Richardson, vice president of human resources at Estes Express Lines, also noted their back-office employee staff of nearly 7,000 is in a more stable work environment than expected in 2023. He added the back-office staff performs the essential functions that make them “the glue that holds everything together.”
“They are our planners, our coordinators; they are the transactional folks that position our freight in the right place to allow the drivers to execute the great work that they do,” Richardson said. “Theirs are essential functions and roles within our organization, and any dip in labor numbers or volatility with hiring drastically limits our ability to service our customers.”
Estes Express Lines, based in Richmond, Va., ranks No. 12 on the for-hire TT100.
Richardson said that at present, Estes is seeing a good applicant flow. While they still rely on traditional recruitment platforms to bring in external talent, the company has developed an effective approach to increasing candidates via its employee referral program. “We get really great employees who know other really great people who are looking for really great jobs; we are trying to leverage that,” he said.
Sara Graf, vice president of sustainability, culture and communications, who helped develop Estes’ employee referral program, also said that they focus on communicating what life is like at the company. “We’re a family-inspired culture, and we want to make sure that comes through in everything we’re sharing,” she said, adding that communication often starts at their career webpage.
“We also do a variety of hiring events, in person and virtual, and partner with local organizations,” she said. “We’ve done things with tech schools, community colleges, veterans’ organizations and workforce centers to get the word out.”
Fleets such as ArcBest have leveraged the history and longevity of their company as a selling point for potential hires. (ArcBest)
Social media plays a large role in conveying information about available jobs.
“One of our aspirations is to be a leading place to work,” said Jason Turner, vice president of talent and growth initiatives for ArcBest, an integrated logistics company. The company is celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 2023 and is leveraging that milestone in its hiring practices by emphasizing the longevity of the company and corresponding longevity of employees.
ArcBest, headquartered in Fort Smith, Ark., ranks No. 14 on the for-hire TT100.
Like Estes, ArcBest has an employee referral program, in which employees receive a small financial incentive for recommending candidates who go on to get hired. Turner believes these programs are effective because, “When someone refers someone else, there’s a little more accountability.”
Besides referrals, Turner said that the company “fishes in many channels” to find the best candidates for back-office positions, from such digital methods as LinkedIn and Indeed, to establishing relationships with community colleges. “We’re emphasizing the military and transitioning service members; this is very important for us as well,” he said.
Statlander agreed that being proactive is the way to find talent. “Gone are the days of posting a position and thinking people are going to apply. We have to go out and search and hunt and make sure we are finding the right talent,” she said. It takes lots of work to refine our recruitment process to identify the right skills and capabilities. With this labor market, candidates are interviewing us as much as we are interviewing them.”
Retention is the flip side to recruitment and is often a bigger challenge. “The ones that are doing more and leading the charge are investing in things like training and education for their people, developing their people into better professionals and showing folks that they’re really invested in their growth as individual professionals,” said Schreiber.
Estes Express’ Richardson said one of the most important retention strategies is to focus on upward mobility for employees and look for career-minded people to fulfill all roles. Richardson started as a dockworker and worked up to his current position as vice president in human resources.
“We have training initiatives to elevate people to a different level in their career,” he said. “A dockworker can be elevated to a dock supervisor, for example.”
Industry representatives agree that the future is bright for back-office workers, with jobs continuing to be in demand. (Yellow)
Yellow’s Statlander said that the company has been working on retention over the past few years; drivers, dockworkers and supervisors are included in these initiatives. “Communicate. Make sure new hires understand the requirements of the job,” she said. “The terminals and locations that really place emphasis on that are the places we have seen great improvement in terms of our retention, and dispatchers are a big key to that.”
She emphasized the importance of talking to drivers and dockworkers and having connection with them. “We’ve read studies that drivers will leave if they don’t feel like they are being respected or listened to,” Statlander said. “Our dispatchers and dockworkers are a big key in that relationship.”
Training and leadership development are keys to retention, she noted. “We have a robust supervisor onboarding program that we launched in the last year,” Statlander said, adding that Yellow has an apprenticeship program that provides on-the-job training.
Turner noted that ArcBest focuses on development opportunities for employees so that when people come to work at the company, they know that they can build their entire career there. “There are hundreds of people annually that are promoted across our company,” he said, adding the goal is to create a good work life with camaraderie and a family atmosphere.
Industry representatives agree that the future is bright for back-office workers, with jobs continuing to be in demand.
“I think technology and the use of data will continue to reshape the jobs, which will continue to be more enriched by the availability of real-time data; this will make the job itself different but it will continue to be needed,” said Turner. “Human skills will continue to be more in demand as technology augments and supports the roles themselves.”
Schreiber agrees that the development of technology will not replace people but help “to augment their ability to work more effectively and increase the metrics the company cares about,” he said.
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Richardson believes that another reason why back-office workers are viable is that it is a secure position. “There are very few scenarios where any levels of technology will replace the extremely valuable work our back-office workers do. That work is so vitally important, and so transactional,” he said.
Statlander thinks there will always be a steady demand for drivers, dockworkers and field leadership.
“I think from an industry perspective, especially for us in our portion of the industry, we’re going to continue to see those front-line supervisor roles continues to have an importance,” she added. “That will be an ongoing effort for us as many companies in the industry address that situation of getting younger people exposed to and interested in a career in trucking.”