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July 18, 2016 4:00 AM, EDT

Opinion: Hiring Right People Can Cut Driver Turnover

This Opinion piece appears in the July 18 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

By Dave Manning

President

TCW Inc.

Intermodal drivers are the essential link in the global and domestic supply chains, providing the first- and last-mile service for every load. A healthy intermodal network depends upon an adequate and ready supply of drayage drivers. This, in turn, is dependent on the ability of these drivers to operate in the most productive environment, be treated as professionals and with respect and earn a reasonable living for their efforts.

Manning

Unfortunately, this rarely describes the industry reality. Multihour delays along the intermodal chain, impersonal treatment at terminals and facilities, poor quality of intermodal equipment tendered and regulatory burdens combine to chase drivers from the industry.

At TCW, we know the challenges of driver recruitment and retention, and we’ve learned a number of lessons over the past two years.

Last year, TCW hired 220 drivers, and lost 166 over the same time period, resulting in a 39% turnover. This percentage, though significantly higher than our normal rate, was nearly 10% less than in 2014. And in 2015, we provided only one wage increase of 4%, compared with two increases the previous year, each at the same percentage. Retaining drivers continues to be a big challenge, but things are moving in the right direction.

The general slowdown in freight is one contributing factor that can’t be overlooked. But I also believe we took some specific steps in 2015 that paid off. Chief among them, we took a hard look at our core value of “satisfying jobs.” We recognize the value of our employees and reward their dedication.

It was obvious we were failing at this core value when we looked at our alarming churn in 2014. So, in our exit interviews with drivers, we began to analyze the reasons they leave TCW. The No. 1 reason (30%) for leaving was a perceived better job at another company. Second (20%) was a dissatisfaction with TCW, e.g. shift, hours, containers, etc. To own their own truck was the third reason (12.5%) for leaving.

Armed with this information, we retooled our hiring efforts to focus on onboarding the right person.

Who’s the right person? He or she is someone who has had job stability in the past, really wants to come to work for TCW, clearly understands the work we have available and is excited about TCW’s pay and benefits. Retention begins at the interview, and our data clearly showed that we were spinning our wheels by not hiring the “right” driver initially.

From that point forward, our managers focused more closely on our new drivers, ensuring they were being successfully acclimated to the “TCW way.” About 85% of TCW’s turnover occurs with drivers who have two years or fewer in seniority. Our managers now schedule regular talks with these new hires.

Furthermore, we have deployed “driver coaches” at every terminal to mentor newer hires and coach all drivers on safe, productive behavior. There is no better spokesman for TCW than one of our professional drivers. We depend upon their eyes, ears and leadership to develop tenured operators.

Alongside these efforts, we believe that veterans can fill a critical role in meeting our need for drivers, and we are excited about our commitment to “hiring our heroes.” Our goal is to hire 30 veterans per year. Veterans bring with them a maturity and self-discipline that we value.

We recruit them during their wind-down period from the military. After a few days in the classroom explaining TCW and DOT regulations, we then partner them with a TCW driving professional who will serve as their mentor for the next three weeks or so. In return for hiring and training them, they commit to work at the company for two years.

Of course, recruitment and retention efforts alone will not solve the industry’s problems. Intermodal’s decreasing pool of qualified drivers is driven in large part by the ongoing degradation of productivity. This includes excessive terminal turn times, separation of box and chassis, and the poor condition of equipment already mentioned. Each of these items poses obstacles that will require the entire intermodal industry’s attention and appropriate responses to resolve.

TCW is doing its part to address these supply chain issues through organizations such as the Intermodal Association of North America. IANA has committees and task forces focused on operational and maintenance and repair specifics of driver productivity, as well as a board subcommittee that is addressing overall driver treatment. IANA’s Information Services Department just launched a web platform for street interchanges and is working on a gate control solution that will be launched later in the year. These are exciting solutions that should increase driver productivity and reduce empty miles traveled.

Despite the demand for new drivers, large numbers of younger candidates have not yet been attracted to careers behind the wheel. Instead, they are choosing other occupations. With more active drivers rapidly approaching retirement age, recruitment and retention policies and practices deserve our full attention.

Drayage drivers are essential to the movement of intermodal loads. They are normally the physical interface with shippers and beneficial cargo owners, so hiring and keeping the right people is critical. We are still improving, but TCW’s experience so far shows that a comprehensive approach can go a long way.

Manning is a board member of the Intermodal Association of North America, which will host Intermodal EXPO 2016 in Houston on Sept. 18-20. He also is second vice chairman of American Trucking Associations. Nashville, Tennessee-based TCW is a diversified transportation provider that operates nine inland terminals and two port locations.