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February 20, 2017 3:15 AM, EST

Hiring, Keeping Young Drivers Proves a Constant Battle as Workforce Ages

Corey Gray

This story appears in the Feb. 20 print edition of Transport Topics.

Attracting and retaining younger drivers could hold the key to solving the trucking industry’s persistent struggle with turnover, but that’s much easier said than done, fleets are finding.

In fact, driver churn is such a prevalent issue that the seemingly staggering 81% turnover rate at large truckload fleets in the third quarter of 2016 actually was down 19% from the 100% rate a year earlier, according to American Trucking Associations.

TCW Inc. doesn’t experience those alarming levels of turnover, but the Nashville, Tennessee- based intermodal carrier hired 200 drivers last year and lost 192 from a workforce of 450.

“You net eight out of hiring 200 drivers?” TCW President Dave Manning said. “They’re in the front door and out the back door. That’s much more of a concern than our [near-record] 44% turnover. About 85% of our turnover occurs within the first two years after a driver is hired.

“It’s frustrating for our human resources department to process all those applications and for our operations department to spend all this time interviewing people and then to keep having to work with new drivers who might not know where they’re going or how TCW deals with customers. It creates stress throughout the organization.”

Complicating that revolving door is the fact that more than a quarter of all of drivers are 55 or older and can see retirement on the horizon, while fewer than 5% are younger than 25, according to a 2014 study by the American Transportation Research Institute.

And with miles driven expected to climb 44% in the next three decades, according to projections by the Department of Transportation, it’s no wonder fleets are worried.

Replacing baby boomers with millennials seems the obvious solution, but that’s been proving difficult.

“It’s absolutely harder to keep drivers than when I started 20 years ago,” said Craig Voineag, recruiting director for McElroy Truck Lines Inc., a Cuba, Alabama-based fleet with 625 drivers running flatbeds in about half the country. “Finding and retaining drivers is the biggest problem that we all have.

“This new generation, these guys want to be at home every night. That seems to be the biggest reason we lose them. We get them home every weekend. That used to be a competitive advantage, but now everybody seems to be doing that to some extent.”

Voineag said that millennials are different from baby boomers, noting that the former wouldn’t even think of being on the road for weeks at a time as once was common in the industry.

“The millennials have different values,” Voineag said. “They’re not as materialistic. They’re not going to slave away all day to get stuff. Our generation didn’t call in sick. The drivers that have left us in the last several months have mostly left for local driving jobs so that they can be home every night. A company that can figure out how to run regional freight and get its drivers home every night will go a long way to solving the puzzle.”

Boyd Bros. Transportation hasn’t solved that puzzle, but a third of its 600 drivers have been with the company at least a decade. Lori Furnell, vice president of communications, said the Birmingham, Alabama, flatbed fleet has benefited from a rider program in which family members or significant others often spend Monday though Friday on the road with drivers, almost all of whom are home from Friday evening through Sunday evening.

“We’ve got to do that so we can attract those younger guys,” Furnell said. “Fortunately, the nature of flatbed isn’t seven days a week. Our driver who just reached 3 million miles with us will tell you he had mouths to feed and wanted to grow with the company. The newer generation views stability differently. They’ve watched their parents be laid off and have to change jobs.”

Unlike the older generation, millenials tend to be a bit more skeptical, she said, adding that they know how much money and time off they want to receive, and expect it upfront.

Millennials accounted for 28% of applicants on AllTruckJobs.com in the fourth quarter of 2016, up from 24% in the same period a year earlier, but Generation X applicants on the site soared to 55% from 24% in the same timeframe.

“Both millennials and Generation X are actively involved in researching and reviewing companies before they apply,” said Margaret Coleback, internet marketing manager for Track5Media, which creates and manages job boards such as AllTruckJobs.com. “That’s why it’s important for trucking companies to get as many reviews about their fleet as possible. One of the easiest ways is by simply asking current truckers to write reviews and testimonials. This will not only produce authentic reviews that will attract new recruits, but it may also provide insight as to what aspects the com- pany is doing well in and which areas need to be improved, which could help to increase retention.”

Furnell asks the members of every Boyd Bros. orientation class how they found the company and where they themselves can be found online. She also asks how many are using each social media platform — 90% of new hires check out Boyd Bros. that way. In response, she has upgraded the company’s Instagram presence while reducing it on Twitter.

TCW’s Manning thinks there’s a better way than social media to find new drivers.

“It’s a big problem that we’re not allowed to hire drivers out of high school,” he said. “States allow them to drive intrastate. We need to allow them to drive interstate. If we can send people to the military at 18, we can certainly teach them to drive trucks. I believe that’s more of an issue than the fact that millennials aren’t attracted to our industry.

“For whatever reason, truck driving isn’t the respectable profession that it was maybe 50 years ago. We need to improve the image of a truck driver. It’s a different job than it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. That could open doors to younger drivers, but we’ve got to make them aware of what a cab of a truck looks like today. As trucks continue to utilize technology, it becomes a whole lot like a video game.”

At the same time, Manning is concerned that the advent of self-driving trucks could keep people from wanting to become drivers.

“The Otto driverless truck sent a message that this isn’t a long-term profession, which is totally false,” Manning said. “A driver is going to be behind the wheel of a truck for the foreseeable future. Drivers might be like airline pilots where they don’t actually have to control every movement, but there won’t be a truck going down the highway without a driver somewhere in that vehicle.”

In contrast, Voineag of McElroy Truck Lines sees automated driving technology as a selling point for the industry.

“I think it will make the job a little more attractive because the driver will mostly be able to sit in the sleeper and watch TV, read or surf the net,” he said. “I think we’re going to see something along the lines of that during the next five or 10 years. I think it’s coming faster than everybody thinks because we don’t tend to look at that horizon in the industry. We always look at the next year or two.”