November 4, 2021

Tips for boosting driver retention


With drivers having the upper hand at the bargaining table, it’s up to fleets to make the next move

It’s one thing to recruit quality drivers but keeping them is the real challenge.

The industry has long dealt with a driver shortage that seems to have only worsened since the beginning of the pandemic. Now more than ever, drivers have the upper hand at the bargaining table.

It’s up to motor carriers to earn the loyalty of their fleet but doing so means changes must be considered. Reliance Partners’ director of safety, Robert Kaferle, urges companies to establish driver retention programs among other changes to convince quality drivers to remain with their fleet.

“Gone are the days where carriers have the ability to tell a driver, ‘If you don’t like it, just go,’” Kaferle said. “I hear carriers say they don’t have the time to address these issues or create a retention program. Right now, drivers are your business. Take the time to do it or you’ll have plenty of time soon enough.”

The industry widely acknowledges that driver shortages are problematic, but the reasons for it are many. The majority of the blame currently rests on COVID-19, as the pandemic hit trucking with a double gut punch.

First, CDL schools nationwide were closed or disrupted, making it difficult for nearly 25,000 to 40,000 truck drivers to be trained in April of last year. Then, as new entrants slowed to a trickle, the trucking industry also saw many of its older and experienced drivers retire or leave the industry.

The American Trucking Associations note the shortage has only increased. Before the pandemic, the shortage was estimated to be around 61,500 drivers needed to keep goods flowing, but that number has since reached 80,000 drivers.

It’s never too early to start recruiting. CDL-licensed drivers under the age of 21 are restricted from interstate driving. However, Kaferle recommends fleets to look into intrastate hauling opportunities to engage drivers under the age of 21. Giving drivers as young as 18 the shot at hauling shorter loads closer to home allows them to gain experience that builds the foundation for what may result in an established career in trucking.

But the promise of high wages and guaranteed work has lost some of its luster as driver preferences have changed. The stresses of life on the road have many yearning for more time with family, shorter lengths of haul and belonging to a fleet with a cohesive driver culture.

Despite the lone nature of the job, most drivers want to feel a sense of belonging with their company. Kaferle said forming a bond with your drivers begins immediately at orientation, describing that it’s crucial that drivers feel they’ve made the right choice.

However, recognition must go beyond the first day; fleets should give their drivers a shoutout for good performance among other holidays such as work anniversaries and birthdays. Little things like this over time can go a long way in making drivers feel appreciated.

“We’ve gone from an industry where truck drivers just wanted to get in the truck and drive to now where recognition is wanted most,” Kaferle said.

This isn’t to say that the haul itself is no longer a priority. In fact, Kaferle said it’s very beneficial to evaluate lanes and to offer dedicated routes when possible.

“Drivers love to have dedicated lanes because they know where they’re going, they know when they’re going, they know how long it takes them to reach each truck stop where they can stop at and plan,” Kaferle said. “There’s no downside to a dedicated route.”

Kaferle instructs his fleet clients to focus on three things to strengthen driver retention: driver interaction, equipment upgrades and operations improvements.

His aim is for fleets to be like a second family to their drivers. If that’s the goal, he said it’s important to also allow for drivers’ spouses to be included in the picture. Whether it be voicing their opinions at safety meetings or inviting families to holiday parties, Kaferle encourages companies to create a sense of community between the motor carrier, its drivers and their families.

Another thing fleets can do is build trust with drivers through the freedom to drive unrestricted. Rather than implement speed limiters to encourage safe driving for instance, Kaferle said that drivers much appreciate fleet managers who trust them to make the right decisions.

“What you’re really doing is rewarding your fleet for doing the right thing, and you’re managing the exception with telematics and event notifications so the drivers that are speeding and are abusing that privilege can be dealt with without penalizing the whole fleet,” Kaferle said, acknowledging that while he doesn’t encourage speeding, restricting its function prevents drivers from quickly passing slow-moving vehicles in a timely manner.

Kaferle also encourages motor carriers to make sure their customers are properly taking care of their drivers, too. He suggests asking shippers to allot more break time to their drivers, as well as consider more efficient ways of loading and unloading, perhaps adopting a drop-and-hook scenario.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to drivers that have delivered to places that wouldn’t let them use their restroom,” Kaferle said. “There’s a huge opportunity for the carrier to get their customers involved in retaining their drivers and making sure that their drivers are taken care of.”

Kaferle said not to forget your aging or just-retired drivers, as they’re still of value. The median age of commercial drivers is 46, compared to 41 for all other workers. Aging drivers are chock-full of experience that younger drivers have yet to accrue. For drivers looking to settle down, Kaferle suggests asking if they’d like to reduce their hauls to perhaps pulling just a load or two every week or so.

“Then you could have three or four drivers that pull just one or two loads a week to share the same truck throughout the week,” Kaferle said.