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A Radical Idea For Managing Truck Drivers: Treat Them Better


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Wall Street Journal / August 13, 2014

Truck driver turnover is always chronic, but it’s getting especially urgent now that the economy is gaining steam and railroads are losing it. Demand for trucking is rising.

But long haul trucking is a fragmented industry that pays its truck drivers in cents per mile. It generally doesn’t pay for the time they sit around waiting for shippers to load or unload or any of the other inconveniences of the job. That’s just the way it is.

So a recent blog post by trucking company Ryder System was unusual, to say the least. For starters, it sounded more like Silicon Valley than trucking. “Drivers are a precious resource,” wrote William P. Townsend, Ryder’s Group Director of Labor Strategy. Once on board, “the next step is to keep them happy and loyal.”

Understand this is not an industry that mollycoddles drivers. It hardly trains them. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is calling for mandatory training and driver education for all entry-level truck drivers. Drivers are paid when the wheels are turning. They aren’t paid for time (or miles) lost because of traffic, construction, a break-down or delays–often for hours–caused by shippers or receivers. They often miss holidays, birthdays and weekends. They never know when, because delays and route changes are so unpredictable.

So how does Ryder propose to keep truck drivers happy? Improve their quality of life. Some companies promise truckers predictable time at home, Mr. Townsend says, citing a survey that identifies lack of it as a top sticking point. Make trucking a career path and not just a job, with defined expectations and goals and the ability to transition into other positions at the company, he suggests. Sound crazy? Not so much, when you consider that David Abney, who becomes chief executive of United Parcel Service Inc. Sept. 1, drove a truck early in his career.

To retain drivers, some companies are “exploring benefit options,” the blog post says, including change to vacation policies. Drivers also appreciate being treated with respect. “Drivers want to feel like they are a part of the company they are working for,” Mr. Townsend says. So companies are asking them to serve on safety committees or help design routes.

All this may sound like common sense in most industries, but Mr. Townsend is addressing the elephant in the room for the highly fragmented trucking industry, where thin margins and low labor costs have been part of the business model. As demand rises and supply tightens, that has to change. Employers will have to pay up and find other ways to keep drivers.

All this is easy for Mr. Townsend to say. Ryder employs about 6,000 drivers as part of its supply chain solutions business. Those drivers get lots of training. They are generally assigned to specific routes and Ryder customer accounts. They can be asked to wear a Ryder customer’s uniform and interact with the customers of Ryder’s customers. So retaining them is especially important to Ryder. Each year, it rewards its top drivers by sending them on a cruise.

The formula seems to be working. Ryder posted record second quarter earnings recently, beating its own forecast, and its stock price is on a roll.

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