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January 2, 2018 1:45 PM, EST

Opinion: Don’t Forget, Drivers Are Trucking’s Most Important Asset

For the first time in more than a decade, the driver shortage tops the American Transportation Research Institute’s list of critical issues facing the trucking industry — and we should be ashamed.

Despite industry beliefs to the contrary, I don’t buy the idea that this is a scarcity created by age demographics or a generational loss of work ethic. Instead, I believe this shortage was created because those of us who promote ourselves as trucking industry leaders failed to lead.

Chandler

At an American Trucking Associations’ event back in the 1980s, I watched industry consultant, speaker and trainer Dan Baker stress that we needed laser-like focus on taking care of drivers because they do the work the rest of us get paid for. In the ensuing decades, Dan’s message has remained constant, yet constantly ignored. We have been diligent at taking care of our trucks, computers, paperwork and processes, but we have forgotten our most important asset: our drivers.

Money alone is not a motivator, but it does reveal our priorities. Over the past decade, we have let real wages for drivers decline while paying more to our executives and more for our trucks.

Dan recently reminded me of the old line, “If nobody is following you, you are not leading — you are just out for a walk!”

We clearly haven’t been leading, because potential workers are not following us into the industry.

And trucking is an all-American industry; Americans love the open road — the United States has more vehicles than driving-age citizens — and Americans need good jobs. Drivers are in high demand, and truck driving should be a natural path forward for many of the nation’s underemployed workers. Driving does not require an advanced degree and has the benefit of being the type of job that cannot be “off-shored” globally.

Dan always has stressed that the most effective driver recruitment strategy is a simple process of culture-building; when a company’s culture attracts drivers, the company doesn’t need slick promotional campaigns. For truck driving to again be an appealing career choice, we must collectively adopt driver-centric corporate cultures that attract entry-level workers to the field.

Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report should give us some insight into where we (and our counterparts in other industries) have gone astray. Two-thirds of American workers are merely marking time, or worse, actively disengaged and undermining what their co-workers accomplish. Gallup CEO Jim Clifton blamed this disengagement on “bosses from hell” that make subordinates miserable. Given the high driver turnover rates at longhaul truckload carriers, that might be some of us.

Longhaul truck driving is a lonely job in which drivers have only brief and infrequent interactions with their companies. Instead of using those rare moments of contact to build personal connections based on respect, trust and belonging, companies allow these discussions to devolve into an impersonal accounting of paperwork, maintenance, routing, fueling, etc. Lured by competitors’ signing bonuses, drivers rotate from company to company in search of a greener pasture that they can finally call “home.”

Another of Dan’s trademark phrases is, “People don’t remember what we say, they remember how we made them feel.” We have built powerful bureaucracies in which our most important workers (the drivers) can feel like they don’t matter.

Drivers catch grief from everyone they talk to: from dispatchers to log compliance clerks to maintenance personnel to paperwork monitors. They don’t feel important, and they don’t feel engaged. We mistakenly think we’ll make them feel better by sending them a birthday card or feeding them a hot dog during Driver Appreciation Week. But that’s not good enough.

Each new year gives us a fresh start. Let’s do better in 2018!

Joe Chandler has been a transportation executive for more than 30 years and serves as president of SPI International Transportation, a brokerage and logistics firm with offices in the United States and Canada.