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January 30, 2012 5:00 AM, EST

Fleets Need to Adjust Training, Hours to Handle Aging Trucking Workforce

By Rip Watson, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the Jan. 30 print edition of Transport Topics.

Trucking industry officials and employment experts said fleets can maximize the contributions from an aging workforce through specialized training and altering certain job tasks and hours.

Information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the average trucking worker was 46.1 years old last year, compared with 42.1 for all workers. Six years ago, truckers averaged 42.8 years old, 2.1 years more than the national average of 40.7 years.

“The older workforce brings a lot of history and experience that we can capture,” Debra Dunn, president of Oregon Trucking Associations, told Transport Topics. Her group has worked with state officials on safety programs to highlight aging workers’ needs. “As their needs change, many are finding they need additional training.”

“Change can be difficult for them,” she said, particularly new technology and regulations such as the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program.

“We need to help them embrace technology,” she added, by using incentives such as rewards for boosting fuel mileage or reducing idling.

“Many of the folks who are aging don’t want to work full time anymore,” said Kelly Anderson, a former truck driver who now heads consulting firm Impact Training Solutions. Those workers increasingly are becoming casual, or part-time drivers.

“When the full-time driver has time off, the casual driver will take their run,” Anderson told TT. “That way, carriers are getting more utilization out of the equipment.”

As drivers age, fleets also can adjust by moving away from more labor-intensive freight such as flatbed and seeking more van business, Anderson added.

He also emphasized training.

“Most fleets have no proactive training” for veteran drivers, he said, while urging training for drivers who have a safety event instead of simply sending a warning letter.

“We have to recognize their limits,” said Rob Weston, executive director of British Columbia’s Trucking Safety Council. “They don’t have the energy and stamina [of younger workers].”

His group advocates multiple steps to help aging workers avoid injury and improve productivity.

They include mechanical and powered devices for lifting, long-handled tools to limit bending, limits on climbing and work schedules that avoid fatigue and extreme temperatures. Other recommendations are stretch breaks, regular eye exams, bright markings on steps to ensure visibility and written material that is easy to read.

“We are trying to bring answers to fleets to show them what they can do,” said Weston, whose group does safety and health audits that can give companies lower insurance rates if they pass. “We are trying to look at the human factors and make sure that they have safety systems in place.”

Weston now concentrates on carriers with fewer than 20 employees, because workers there often have multiple tasks and may lack  safety or health expertise.

“We need to be utilizing older drivers to be mentors,” said industry consultant Dan Baker. “We can start putting them through training on how to teach younger drivers, without putting them down.

“Companies need to go to older drivers and ask them what changes they are seeing in the industry and learn from that,” he said. “They are worth their weight in gold.”

He offered ideas such as meeting with older drivers over breakfast at truck stops and letting them critique activities such as orientation programs.

“One reason [fleets] don’t talk to the old guys more is that they don’t tell people what they want to hear,” Baker said. He urged carrier officials to be patient.

“The longer you listen to [older drivers], the more positive they’ll become,” Baker said.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, agreed that veteran drivers can be effective mentors.

However, he reiterated that mentoring alone won’t be enough to solve a long-standing difficulty.

“The average real income for people who drive trucks is about $40,000 a year with an 80-hour work week,” he said. “That’s not attractive as a career.”

In addition to raising pay, Spen-cer said fleets should reward the professionalism of older workers. This includes their having a better safety record than younger workers and a commitment to dependable deliveries.

Rob Abbott, a vice president at American Trucking Associations, added a medical perspective.

“Ninety-five percent of truck drivers are male, and as they become older they are more likely to have sleep apnea,” he said.

That condition causes daytime sleepiness and has been linked to heart disease and other ailments.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Medical Review Board, an advisory panel, is expected to make recommendations about sleep apnea and its effect on drivers later this year.