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How to Navigate through the Driver Shortage

Aug. 1, 2014
While many factors are attracting drivers away from trucking, technology that improves the quality of drivers’ work life can become a major element in plans to attract, retain and engage new talent.

Blame it on the aging baby boomers or millennials with six-figure earning expectations. Blame it on an improving national economy and employee turnover rates that rival those at fast food joints. Or blame it on the job description, which includes long hours behind the wheel and long days away from family and the comforts of home. Whatever the reasons – and there are many – the fact is that the U.S. is in desperate need of well-qualified truck drivers.

Despite a national unemployment rate that is still above six percent, the transportation industry is having a hard time finding, hiring and retaining truck drivers. More than 30,000 job openings for truck drivers are currently unfilled, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Transportation industry forecasting and marketing analysis firm FTR Associates says that the industry must attract 100,000 new drivers each year to keep up with demand growth and driver attrition, with that number growing as high as 250,000 by 2015.

Retaining drivers is another problem operators across the country know all too well. According to the ATA, the national driver turnover rate was about 96 percent in 2013, comparable to the employee turnover rates experienced in the retail and restaurant industries.

All this is dire news to the transportation industry, supply chain professionals and the entire U.S. economy. Considering that nearly 70 percent of all freight tonnage in the U.S. is moved via truck, the economy would come to a standstill without the industry and our truck drivers, according to the ATA. The ATA also states that to move 9.2 billion tons of freight annually requires nearly 3 million heavy-duty Class 8 trucks and over 3 million truck drivers.

Wanted: Better Quality of Life on the Road

Supply chain professionals and their transportation industry partners use a variety of different strategies to attract and retain qualified truck drivers. Some suggest big boosts in pay, signing bonuses or tenure-based payments. Others propose a public relations campaign to improve the image of trucking as a profession.

These and other approaches will prove valuable as part of a holistic, coordinated strategy, but it doesn’t address an important fact: many drivers leave the industry to spend more time at home. Nevertheless, one of the most effective recruiting and retention tools could be to provide drivers with trucks equipped with some of the comforts of home.

For example, an auxiliary power unit (APU) can provide heating and cooling to maintain a comfortable temperature in the cab and sleeper without idling the truck’s main engines—creating an additional benefit of reduced fuel costs by as much as $25 per night (depending on fuel costs and idle time). An APU is a small diesel or battery-powered engine that generates electricity for these and other applications on a truck.

John “JP” Peterson, director of recruiting, safety and maintenance for dry haul company SAV Express, a division of SAV Transportation Group, recently ordered 50 new trucks equipped with an APU. He believes the decision has been an essential factor in attracting quality drivers to his Minneapolis-based company.      

“Driver retention is an industry challenge, no doubt,” he says. “An APU allows drivers to make the most of their time on the road. It keeps them warm, powers refrigerators, microwaves, TVs and even CPAP machines for the growing number of drivers diagnosed with sleep apnea. Choosing the right equipment for our new, company-owned fleet has been essential to enticing drivers and running efficiently.”

In addition, an APU powers computers, tablets, gaming systems and other devices that help drivers create a sense of normalcy and steer clear of boredom while on the road.

Operationally, the most advanced APU solutions provide significant fuel-saving advantages compared to generator-based designs. They also help operators meet federal and California Air Resource Board (CARB) environmental regulations through the use of an optional diesel particulate filter, which enables coast-to-coast operation.

Industry Unity Required

Supply chain professionals and their transportation industry partners are competing for the best-qualified and most-experienced drivers. That could drive up labor costs in the short term, but for the long-haul, industries must come together to find ways to make trucking attractive to new generations of prospective drivers.

With this in mind, the industry has identified a number of strategies to address the driver shortage and improve retention. These include:

  • Improving pay and benefit programs to reward drivers for safety, longevity, experience and performance;
  • Building stronger relationships and improving communications between a company and its drivers;
  • Providing development opportunities and laying out career paths so drivers can aspire to progress;
  • Building stronger ties between the industry and professional truck driver schools; and
  • Promoting truck driving as an attractive alternative to other industrial-type jobs.

This industry cannot afford to underestimate the size and severity of the driver shortage. The ATA acknowledges that the population of drivers must expand by roughly 100,000 per year to make up for attrition and retirements in an industry projected to grow nearly 25 percent in gross tonnage by 2025.

Doug Lenz is vice president of product management for Thermo King, a manufacturer of temperature control systems for various mobile applications and a brand of Ingersoll Rand. Lenz has more than 28 years of experience in the transportation and construction equipment industries.

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