Management & Operations

Undoing a Generation of Driver Shortages

Posted on March 1, 2006 by Jack Burkert

Today’s driver shortages have a long history. The unhappy truth is that shortages of motorcoach drivers have been a passenger transportation industry problem for more than a generation. For more than 20 years, the problem of finding and retaining competent drivers has remained on the industry crisis list. This is a challenge that, for various reasons, won’t seem to go away. A quick look into the future can be even more distressing, as the driver shortage problem looks to worsen. Driver shortage consequences to a company can test even the most experienced managers. Many of us believe that if we have one more trick up our sleeves or work just a little harder, we can find that treasure trove of qualified people, if not today, then certainly tomorrow. The sobering truth is that there is no magic bullet, no trick to be implemented and no solution that personal work ethic will solve. Safety, operational implications
Perhaps the most important consequence of driver shortages is the impact on safe and competent operations. It has been demonstrated that where driver turnover is high, there are higher crash rates and greater instances of service failure. Customers and companies both suffer when the driver workforce is continuously inexperienced, unproven and forced to operate unfamiliar equipment on unfamiliar routes. Safety is not the only casualty. Discipline can become problematic as well. When discipline is demanded, the fear of an errant driver resigning rather than accepting a penalty replaces the company’s desire for standardized, safe and competent performance. Under these circumstances, discipline often doesn’t exist. Finally, there is the effect of the shortage on those who are already working at the company. Demands for longer hours to pick up the slack mean everyone pays a price. Companywide, every CDL holder might be suddenly asked to drop what they are doing and drive a coach. Inefficiency sets in along with frustration and fatigue, and eventually increase both risk and turnover. The future of shortages
To understand why this problem can get worse, one need only look at some statistics. The demographics do not favor the industry, it seems. In my recently completed book on driver recruiting and retention (available for purchase at, I provide population data to show that operators need to be thinking differently about where tomorrow’s drivers will come from. The changes in store for our society are significant enough to be considered early in your recruiting process. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show that the major growth in the workforce is overwhelmingly in older age groups. Between now and 2012, according to the BLS, the labor force will actually decline in younger age groups, while the availability of older workers will increase dramatically, by some 56%. What can you do about this population shift? Your recruiting efforts, and perhaps even your operations, may have to adjust. The traditional, much-sought-after worker — youthful to middle aged, full time with family responsibility, available all hours of the day and night — has now become a scarce, declining commodity. That worker is being replaced by people who are older and who find themselves in different circumstances than younger workers. These more plentiful older workers have a very different set of expectations and job desires. If you find yourself in that over-55 generation, with your families grown up and gone, you know that the one missing element in your life is time, and so it is for those who you will seek as employees. If your company is offering jobs with long hours and odd schedules, to them your jobs are undesirable. Recruiting this fastest growing labor segment will be just about impossible. Recruiting philosophies
The path to effective recruiting and retention of drivers starts where you assess your needs and compare them to the labor market reality. Everything about employee longevity, commitment and turnover should be front and center on your desk, every day. If your company, your bus and your trips are undesirable, underpaid and interchangeable with every other company, why would you expect loyalty? In the absence of a positive difference, turnover is built in. That difference means proving that your work place is the best place to work, and this takes time and patience. It’s important to keep in mind that your driver shortage problems are not unique. Every business has a problem finding and keeping quality workers, but resolving your specific problem may be unique. You need to find that special combination of factors that give you an edge. For instance, rethinking your recruiting, and perhaps even redesigning the jobs you offer to accommodate an aging work force, is a good initial step. You may need to rethink other aspects of the relationship between your company and its employees. Simply put, your company has to stand out as a unique and desirable place to work. If it doesn’t, you will be an “also-ran” in the pursuit of employees. Trained and competent drivers can literally go anywhere they want to find employment. Ask yourself, why would such experienced hands choose to work at your operation? Steps to solving the problem
While companies and their situations can vary widely, here are a few critical items you should add to your checklist for recruitment and retention. 1. Check the money. Wages need to be adequate and in line with the prevailing labor rates for people with similar job skills to the type a driver would have (semi-skilled construction work, for example). Paying a better- than-average wage can be an investment in quality, while poorly paid drivers cost your company more money than you can ever save. 2. Add training. Throw the excuses out the window and develop an internal training program. If you don’t know how, hire some expertise to get you started. Driver surveys repeatedly show that drivers rate training as one of their “unrealized” needs. They want and need training. Set yourself apart with training and retain those high quality people seeking to better themselves. 3. Make adjustments to management. Drivers (and employees, generally) often leave their jobs over disputes with management. Many of these disputes are petty, needless or based on communication problems. The onus is on you to resolve these issues. The key individual in retaining drivers is the supervisor with whom the driver works on a daily basis. That key individual must be presented reasonable service demands and trained to accept, understand and act with the best long-term interests in mind for both the company and the driver. 4. Raise the bar. It is so easy to let your standards slip to accommodate substandard performance. But when you do, you drive a wedge between your highest quality people and your company. Talented and capable people want to surround themselves with similar individuals. Accepting less means risking losing your best. For both driver recruiting and retention, a single solution will not be found, no matter how hard you look. There is no one thing that will create success. Effective recruiting and retention is almost always the result of re-engineering your operation to accommodate a new labor environment. You must devise and cultivate relationships that make your company unique, then adjust your operations to a level where employee satisfaction is on an equal footing with customer satisfaction. After all, today, drivers are customers, too. Jack Burkert is a Maryland-based transportation safety and management consultant.

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