Driver Retention: A Needed Emphasis

By: Michael Howe

The high turnover rate in the trucking industry continues to be a challenge – err, a problem – for carriers and the industry as a whole.  The problem is compounded when one takes into account the estimated driver shortage for the industry as well, with a need for about 1.1 million NEW drivers over he next decade according to the American Trucking Association.  Keeping pace with that need, will require a significant investment by the industry as a whole in recruiting truck drivers.  Once recruited though, carriers need to do all they can to keep them.

Just how bad is the driver turnover problem?  In 2020, the American Trucking Association (ATA) estimated a 90% annualized rate for large fleets, and 69% for smaller fleets.  Yes, you read that correctly – trucking companies are needing to replace nearly three quarters to 100% of their driver fleet on average each year.  The expense behind recruiting and training truck drivers is very real.  According to Freight Waves, the cost of recruiting and onboarding a driver ranges from $6000 to $12000 per driver, depending on the market.  If a company is replacing 90% of its driver force, or even 70%, the cost quickly becomes quite large.

With all this in mind, and an acceptance that driver retention is important, what are the answers?  The first thought that comes to mind for most is pay.  Drivers simply need better compensation.  While this may be true, most carriers are competitive in compensation so pointing to that as a cause of turnover isn’t likely accurate.  In fact, the American Trucking Association’s Executive Vice President of Advocacy Bill Stevens shared the following during a roundtable at the FMCSA, “The median salary for a truckload driver working a national, irregular route was reported most recently at over $53,000, and wages have gone up substantially on average in the first half of 2021. Since 2014, private fleet drivers have seen their pay rise from $73,000 to more than $86,000, or a gain of nearly 18%.  The bottom line is the trucking industry is hiring and paying great wages to drivers.”

So, if it’s not pay, what can carriers do to retain drivers more effectively?  There is no one silver bullet to addressing the problem, but there are several tactics any carrier can take, so long as they do so in a sincere and meaning manner.  These tactics come from a variety of sources, including carriers who are utilizing some of them successfully:

  • Performance Needs Acknowledged – incentivize safety and longevity milestones with compensation (safe miles driven, positive customer reviews, etc…). And, it’s ok to celebrate the little things publicly, even if not financially.  Let drivers know they are truly appreciated.
  • Adopt and Install Electronic Logging Devices – these help to alleviate violations and improves drivers ratings.
  • Maintain Good Relationships With Drivers When They Leave
  • Make Safety a Priority – this should be part of the culture and celebrated. Help drivers improve their skills and celebrate the successes.
  • Embrace Driver Feedback – drivers are the life blood of the company, so why wouldn’t a carrier want to hear from them about what’s working and what’s not working. This isn’t the basic suggestion box, rather try advisory councils or feedback forums (these can be done virtually too).
  • Take the Time For Relationships – spend time during onboarding establishing relationships with new drivers.  Then, maintain those relationships.
  • Overall Compensation Package – it’s not just about the wage, but the overall compensation package is important. This includes, regular pay increases, retirement plans, health/dental insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, and reasonable rates for family insurance plans is key.
  • Quality Equipment – drivers deserve to be behind the wheel of quality, clean, and safe equipment. Make certain drivers have the technological and mechanical tools they need for success.
  • Family First – one of the biggest challenges of the driving career is being away from home. Carriers need to make certain drivers have a good work – life balance.  Make sure drivers get home regularly, make sure drivers have the opportunity for meaningful relationships at home.

The life of a truck driver can be stressful and challenging for a variety of reasons.  As such, achieving 0% turnover is simply impossible, but there is no reason any carrier needs to be at the 70-90% annual average turnover range.  It simply costs too much for carriers not to try new approaches, even if those approaches may have an expense it is unlikely retention focuses expenses won’t pay for themselves over time if truly embraced.  This is a great industry with great carriers and great drivers, it’s time for some adjustments to focus on retention.

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