How to reduce driver turnover

Retaining drivers is a constant and costly struggle for companies trying to keep their trucks seated, particularly in a market where leverage over rates is showing signs of shifting from shippers to carriers.

FreightWaves recently examined some of the primary factors behind high driver turnover in the trucking industry, which frequently occurs within the first 180 days. That first half-year of a driver’s experience with a company includes the onboarding process — which is why carriers must pay close attention to how they manage it.

“Onboarding goes beyond what the application process looks like but extends to what does the orientation process look like and what does the paperwork process look like — and is all of that being made easy for the driver,” Marilyn Surber, transportation adviser for Tulsa, Oklahoma-based trucking compliance consultant Tenstreet, told FreightWaves.

“Are they getting what they need from training to start that job? And what does the transition look like from recruiting to training to operations when they’re actually being dispatched to pick up a load? Carriers need to make sure everyone at each of those touch points and handoffs is delivering the same message so that you’re continuing to meet driver expectations.”

That includes the condition of the truck, Surber added. “Nothing is more discouraging for a driver than graduating from orientation and when they go to get in their truck, it doesn’t start.”

Dealing with compensation

Balancing driver pay with other operational costs is always a challenge, and some trucking companies have made efforts to raise driver pay within the past several years to attract more drivers. But because not all companies are in the position to raise pay by $20,000 per year per driver, eliminating pay fluctuation can be a helpful start to keeping drivers.

“If a driver makes $50,000 a year but can make $1,000 one week and $200 the next, that can certainly contribute to high turnover,” Surber said. “Pay needs to be consistent, and companies that figure out how to do that will have better retention.”

Surveying drivers on how they prefer to be compensated can help with turnover as well, she said. “For example, if drivers responded that detention pay is more important, maybe your company can raise it and maybe they can’t. But asking questions and responding to the answers helps drivers feel more valued.”

Beyond monetary compensation, finding ways to provide choices in different aspects of the job is also important for addressing turnover, according to Surber, such as being able to allow drivers to choose among load options, or the ability to choose among accounts, if possible. Even giving drivers the ability to choose their fleet manager (based on the manager’s profile), instead of assigning someone to them — if that’s possible — can boost retention, she says.

Keeping them healthy

With health issues being one of the largest contributors to driver turnover, many companies have adopted wellness programs. But the trucking companies and the industry overall should be complementing those programs by educating student drivers on effective ways to address challenges associated with the trucking lifestyle, and making sure they understand as they train to get their commercial driver’s license (CDL) that certain health problems can keep them from holding a job.

“It’s not common knowledge, for example, that if you become an insulin-dependent diabetic, you can be disqualified from getting a CDL” due to federal medical requirements, Surber said. “Also, having high blood pressure can also impose limits on the ability to obtain a license. The day in the life of a truck driver is very difficult and they’re being asked to do a lot of different things, and I think companies are doing a better job overall of educating them about what is involved physically when choosing this career.”

More education

Getting the message out early and often about the realities of driving a truck can be one of the best ways to deal with driver turnover, Surber added.

“It’s not ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ anymore. It’s a sophisticated job that drivers are doing, but I think there’s that misconceived notion before they’re ever a truck driver about what the job is.” She pointed out that while carriers have been collaborating with driving schools on education, there’s probably more involvement and education that the industry can do to help schools from a “this-is-what-to-expect” standpoint.

Until someone can figure out how to eliminate driver turnover, carriers with customers requiring long-haul freight transportation must figure out where their retention rate needs to be versus what salary levels they can afford before trying to adjust an operation that requires drivers being away from home much of the time, Surber said.

“Companies can’t go out of business attempting to get drivers home every night.”