July 11, 2016 3:45 AM, EDT

Truckload 1Q Turnover Declines Due to Softer Freight Economy

This story appears in the July 11 print edition of Transport Topics.

Truckload turnover declined in the first quarter because a softer freight economy limited shipment volumes, reducing drivers’ opportunities to switch to a new employer, American Trucking Associations reported.

The rate among larger fleets, with $30 million or more in revenue, was 89%, down from 102% in the fourth quarter, ATA reported July 6. Smaller carriers’ churn dropped a single percentage point to 88%.

“While still fairly high, the decline in turnover is reflective of the softening in the freight economy during the first quarter,” ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said.

Costello explained the turnover decline by saying, “Fleets don’t aggressively recruit other drivers since they don’t have all of the freight they had before to keep them busy.”

Turnover has hovered above 90% in recent quarters for the larger fleets, averaging 93% last year — well below the all-time record of 136% set in 2005. Smaller fleets’ churn last year averaged 79%. Churn at larger fleets was the lowest since last year’s second quarter.

Less-than-truckload carriers’ turnover fell three points to 8%, the lowest point since the second quarter of 2013.

The president of a New Jersey- based tank fleet and two industry experts on turnover trends told Transport Topics last week respect for and communication with drivers is critical.

“If you don’t treat drivers with dignity and respect, then you have a driver problem,” said Steve Rush, president of Carbon Express Inc. Turnover at his Wharton, New Jersey- based fleet currently is 12%.

He said the company eliminated sleeper cabs on its trucks, putting up drivers in motels instead. In addition to pleasing drivers, that step reduced truck weight and increased payload to make Carbon Express more competitive.

“A lot of the drivers told me, ‘I never thought I would drive for a company that didn’t make me sleep in a truck,’ ” Rush said.

Carbon Express also tries to tailor work schedules to driver preferences, he added, getting them home as often as possible if they want that, or scheduling longer runs for those who want to stay on the road.

Another key step is to watch sleep patterns closely for younger drivers, said Rush, who spent nearly 19 years behind the wheel. Based on his experience, he said, those drivers will stay with the company if their adjustment to the demands of a trucker’s schedule is gradual.

He also offered an example of company perks, saying that when drivers were pre-positioned for a move out of Chicago, Carbon Express took them to dinner and a baseball game in a limousine.

“That builds camaraderie,” he said. “If I can take a customer to a ballgame, why not take drivers, too?”

Kelly Anderson, CEO of Impact Training Solutions in Neosho, Missouri, said, “Fleets are more concerned with retention than they ever were before.”

At the same time, he said, some fleets are reducing their recruiting budgets by 50%, even though they have unseated trucks.

Anderson, also a former driver, said that approach sends “real mixed signals” because typically fleets want to fill those seats. However, he said, the lack of freight reduces the need to add drivers and encourages drivers to stick with their own fleets to run miles.

Anderson and Duff Swain, president of Trincon Group in Worthington, Ohio, stressed the importance of first impressions as a long-term action to reduce turnover.

“One of the things we have to do is to be proactive instead of reactive,” Anderson said, “to identify drivers before their problem gets so big that their only alternative is to quit. You’ve got to make them part of the team.”

That is done best, he said, by talking with drivers, starting before they arrive at orientation. He recommended that fleet managers call recruits before orientation begins to welcome them.

Initial contacts are critical because Anderson believes 75% of turnover occurs during the first 90 days, when drivers often are worried they made the wrong fleet choice.

A critical mistake, Anderson said, is that when drivers step into their first truck, there often is something wrong with it, starting them out on the wrong foot.

Swain said that consistent communication is the key to retention.

Fleets just now are catching on to the importance of orientation and a systematic approach to finding the right driver candidates, he said.

Swain said the industry has to move away from simply running an advertisement, checking candidates’ backgrounds and hiring them. Because candidates now do a thorough internet review before making an application, Swain said. Websites should clearly identify “why a driver would want to work for a company. It needs to say, ‘Here is a job you want, and here are the benefits.’ ”

Orientation is all about communication, he said, including opportunities for recruits to meet and talk with key people and step into a clean truck with a veteran driver or trainer for the finishing touches.

He also advocates continued communication, including check-ins at 30 days and just before probationary periods end.