Finding and keeping good feed truck drivers

Finding good truck drivers is getting to be harder and harder; that’s why holding on to those who make the cut is more important than ever.

Nationwide, truck fleets are reporting a turnover rate of 150 percent to 200 percent. In other words, says Philip Winter, a spokesman for the National Truckers Association, some fleets must replace nearly all of their drivers every year. That’s not easy given that the Association also estimates the nation is short 40,000 to 50,000 drivers.

Winter says the shortage isn’t really news. The trucker shortage first materialized a decade or so ago. As older truckers retire, they haven’t been replaced by younger drivers. According to Winter, older truck drivers and their rigs had a relationship much like the one cowboys had with their horses. “Their truck was like that cowboy’s horse in the Old West; he was nothing without his horse.”

Fortunately, there are a few things a feed mill operator can do to help ease the situation, though it is important to remember that for everyone, dealing with the shortage is a battle.

No glamour  

For one thing, trucking just isn’t viewed as glamorous anymore. And with the economy starting to improve, people who might have thought about driving a truck are finding jobs in other industries such as construction.

Compounding the problem is Compliance, Safety, Accountability, a program administered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to improve commercial motor vehicle safety. Compliance, Safety, Accountability holds all commercial carriers accountable for their drivers and companies can lose their authority if they have too many drivers with poor records. One large carrier in Pennsylvania has already lost its authority for just that reason. As a result, companies want to hire experienced drivers with unblemished records.

Limited hours  

Stricter federal limits on the number of hours drivers can work go into effect next year, which will force companies to hire more drivers and exacerbate the national shortage. Thanks to changes in federal laws that require multi-state tracking, a driver who lost a license in one state can’t move to another state and start driving again. That makes for safer roads, but potentially fewer drivers.

Cost of insurance is another factor, Winter says. Insuring an inexperienced driver can cost as much as $10,000 per year while an experienced driver with a clean record will cost around $4,800 to insure. That’s important because insurance is the second highest cost of doing business for commercial carriers.

“Nobody wants a new venture these days,” said Winter. A new venture means a driver who has just completed driving school. Insurance companies want drivers who are at least 25 years of age with at least five years of experience.

Safe feed deliveries  

As the larger carriers snap up the drivers with better driving records, smaller companies and feed mills will be left to pick from drivers that may not be as well trained. Mills that need feed delivered may be willing to hire someone without doing a thorough background check. That could be a costly mistake, Winter says.

“You need to be cognizant of Compliance, Safety, Accountability and hire drivers that allow you to comply with that,” he says. That begins with checking a driver’s crash record from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

“The government is really cracking down on negligent hires,” he adds. “A negligent hire is when you knew the guy you hired had three tickets and now he has gone out and killed someone.”

The Department of Transportation has a two-page prior employment verification worksheet that must be signed by a safety officer. Completing that form will help protect companies hiring a negligent driver and allegations they made a negligent hire.

Keeping good drivers  

Commercial motor vehicle carriers are offering many incentives to keep and retain good drivers, including many they had never before considered. Some of their ideas may also work for feed mills operating their own fleets. Most come down to taking care of good drivers so they want to keep driving for you.

1)  Offer a signing bonus.

2)  Help the driver achieve his goals. Some companies are now helping drivers with the down payment on trucks, something that was unheard of just a few years ago. Once a driver is independent, the company can lease the driver and the truck back. “If you don’t do that, someone else will,” Winter says.

3)  Offer to pay for truck driving school so the driver can attain a commercial driving license. Many unemployed people who might make good truck drivers can’t afford the $4,000 to $6,000 cost of a driver-training course. Some companies such as Con-Way Freight and E.L. Hollingsworth and Co. are paying for the training course in return for asking the trainee to remain with the company for one year.

4)  Offer to pay for enhanced safety training. The National Safety Council offers several defensive driving courses for truckers. Some can be expensive but are worth it, Winter says. “These are the kinds of things insurance companies want to see.”

5)  Make sure drivers can sideline their own rigs. Under the new federal safety regulations, truck drivers should do a check of their lights, brakes and other safety equipment before every load. They are also supposed to be able to red flag their own trucks if they find problems, but many are fearful they will lose time or work if they do so.

6)  Reward drivers with good records through either better pay or benefits. Driver shortages have pushed up salaries by about 5 percent this year to $45,000 to $50,000. Offer “milestone” awards when drivers reach safe driving milestones of 125,000 miles or 250,000 miles. Rewards can be trophies or a special dinner. Recognize drivers with a cake or lunch on their hiring anniversary. Offer a seniority bonus of $1,000 or $2,500 (or more) for every five years with your mill.

7)  Listen to drivers. Create an environment where drivers feel comfortable approaching higher ups, face-to-face, with problems or concerns.

If you’ve got happy drivers, you may find it’s easier to hire new drivers the next time the need arises.