With the impact of the nation’s economy crisis slowly fading in the industry’s rearview mirror and the current pool of drivers aging, many operators are looking to hire quality drivers.

“Business is improving and operators have to hire up to handle the additional workload, whether it be drivers, mechanics, or sales and operations personnel, and that is a good thing,” says United Motorcoach Association (UMA) President/CEO Victor Parra. “The key for those operators when hiring is to be smart about it.”

So, how can an operator be smart about finding, hiring and retaining quality drivers? METRO Magazine spoke to several folks in the industry to find out what tools are available and how their processes work to help you fine tune your own hiring practices.

1. Personality is everything
One positive side effect for operators as a result of the economic downturn and subsequent increase in unemployment a few years back was it expanded the pool of possible new hires.

Despite the growing pool of applicants, however, many operators say it is still difficult to find the perfect match. The key to hiring quality drivers is to know what you are looking for before you begin your recruiting process. A good place to start is the candidate’s personality.

“We don’t look for drivers, we look for individuals we think will be appropriate representatives of our value system and give the best customer service to our passengers,” says Autumn Dipert-Brown, chief operating officer of Arlington, Texas-based Dan Dipert Tours & Coaches. “We do not concern ourselves with finding applicants with experience driving commercial vehicles.”

While Portsmouth, N.H.-based C&J Bus Lines does prefer applicants with not only driving experience but also a clean safety record, James Jalbert, president, and Jamie Lesniak, VP/director, operations, say personality is a huge factor for them.

“It is almost a given you are hiring somebody that can drive, or has those skill sets in place. The next step is taking a look at the personality traits of the individual,” Jalbert explains. “Are we hiring somebody that can deliver excellent customer service and be an ambassador to the clients we serve every day?”

Lesniak adds, personality not only plays a big part in delivering excellent service to customers, but also exposes what a candidate’s tendencies may be behind the wheel.

“It is very obvious personality translates to driving skills,” she says. “If the personality is aggressive and/or complacent, then that translates to how they are on the road.”

Like Dipert-Brown, though, Jalbert says C&J will hire drivers with little or no experience behind the wheel of a motorcoach.

“Right now, we have four or five drivers that have been hired in the last two years that had some or no commercial experience, who we have brought along,” he says. “Sometimes, when you bring a driver in and convert them, a school bus driver or another coach driver, you are inheriting a lot of bad habits.”

In fact, the industry trend is to look for people who have a customer service background or quite simply really like working with people. One factor contributing to that shift is an operation’s desire to stand out from its competition and the realization that good customer service could result in return business.

“The fact of the matter is it is the drivers who are delivering the service that is going to keep the customers happy and coming back,” says Parra. “This is a service business, so for that reason, finding the right people to represent your business is critical.”[PAGEBREAK]

Anchor has begun recruiting online and has reached out to soon-to-be-retiring military personnel.

Anchor has begun recruiting online and has reached out to soon-to-be-retiring military personnel.

2. Recruitment
The next important step to hiring a great driver is finding and attracting your ideal candidate. Your recruiting practices, or the need to even recruit, depend on the area your operation serves and/or how specific your search criteria may be.

In Nashville, Jared Stancil, VP at Anchor Tours, has seen a boom in business and is looking to hire 10 to 12 drivers, but he has had some issues finding those drivers in his area.

“The dynamics of the economy has changed for us in our market, so we have really gotten busy,” he says. “Our utilization is up. Our sales numbers are up. What has happened, though, is we now have a shortfall of qualified capable drivers to be able to operate the coach.”

With vehicles becoming more technologically sophisticated, Anchor has begun focusing heavily on online recruiting, both on its website and through online job sites such as Careerbuilder.com.

“We are looking to attract people with some basic computer skills, because we feel that translates over to operating today’s sophisticated vehicle, so we are relying heavily on that,” Stancil says.

He adds that Anchor has also begun working with a couple of military bases, such as nearby Fort Campbell, to attract some service men or women who may be retiring from the service soon.

“We found military folks fit the profile of who would do well in the charter industry,” Stancil explains. “We have picked up a couple of people through this program so far, and I have been pleased.”

Meanwhile, to find people outside of the industry, Dipert-Brown says her operation’s recruiting tactics have gone a little out of the box.

“The biggest challenge for us is finding the right demographic and reaching them,” she explains. “Because of that, we advertise in more non-conventional ways. For example, instead of placing a small want ad in the newspaper, we will use a large picture ad with wording that will draw people in, and hopefully, make them consider the job a little more closely.”

Dipert-Brown explains that her operation has also used direct mail campaigns through Valpak the last couple of times they were searching for drivers.

Jalbert says C&J hasn’t had to go out looking for drivers in some time, but constantly runs its driver ad on its website, enabling applicants to apply right online even when they are not hiring.
“We never say no to a driver coming in and going through the interview

process, because we feel when you get those good ones they are worth holding on to,” he says. “If we need to start them off part time until a full-time spot becomes available, we will do that.”

Jason Randall, director, human resources at Peter Pan Bus Lines, says word of mouth still plays a large role in finding drivers as well as its website, where applications are accepted year-round.

“We get a couple hundred applicants a month, and we may only hire five to 10 of those people,” he says. “When we do look to actually hire for a division, depending on the division, we will put an ad in the newspaper, although that is few and far between. In those cases, we will also utilize sources like Craigslist and other websites.”

3. Interview, interview, interview
It can take many years to develop a hiring process that works for you, but through trial and error it is definitely in your best interest to do so. Focusing on the interview process is a good place to start.

With Peter Pan having to weed through so many applicants to find only five or 10 drivers, the operation is able to whittle that number down through personality assessments during the online application process and initial interviews. It then will invite applicants in for another interview, asking important questions to get a sense of who the person is and if they will fit in with their culture.

“We try to do some behavioral interviewing and ask an applicant questions to find out how they would handle difficult situations with customers and in traffic,” Randall explains. “It is a strong blend, but certainly during the interview itself, we are emphasizing the need of being able to provide a service to our customers and not just drive a vehicle.”

C&J puts applicants through three interviews before they invite them to participate in their training program.

“The first is a phone interview with the HR director, the second the HR director and operations/dispatch, and the third is with me and one of the two of those people,” says Lesniak. “Following the process, the three of us meet and discuss the details and decide on a candidate.”

She adds that multiple interviews are important to really getting to know the person.

“I don’t want to generalize, but on the second interview, you get a better feeling for the personality of the individual,” Lesniak explains. “They are more comfortable and willing to open up to you. The reason for that is the participant tends to feels more comfortable going into the second interview. That is the goal: to get them as comfortable as possible, so they can open up. That is where you see the good stuff.”

Dipert also puts its applicants through a multiple interview process, making sure to interface with them right from the beginning by having them physically come in to fill out an application, explains Joe Clark, personnel administrator, for Dan Dipert Tours & Charters

“It gives us a chance to get a quick one-on-one with them to identify their social and customer service skills,” he explains. “We will also look over the application at that time to make sure they didn’t miss anything.”

To limit the cost of bringing in applicants who drop out of training, Anchor recently added additional telephone interviews on the front end. The conversation also really gives the operation the chance to gauge if the applicant is cut out to drive a charter bus.

“We talk about the times and volatility of working in the charter bus business, which means different groups, different days; there is nothing set in stone,” Stancil says. “The initial conversation usually makes or breaks someone, because we are telling them the reality of what they are applying for.”[PAGEBREAK]

A solid hiring process paid off for Peter Pan, when Joe Anderson and Alfred Protano reached three million miles accident free.

A solid hiring process paid off for Peter Pan, when Joe Anderson and Alfred Protano reached three million miles accident free. 

4. Make use of tools
Both the UMA and American Bus Association (ABA) offer numerous tools to members to aid in the hiring process.

“In the litigious society we live and work in, companies are always looking to reduce their risk and find out about their employees, or prospective employees before they hire them,” says Dan Ronan, sr. director, communications, for the ABA. “We offer some great discounts, which combined with the benefits of those solutions, really makes it worthwhile for our members to utilize these tools.”

Discounted services offered to members include personality testing, which can help determine if the applicant can fit in at the organization, and background searches — the all-important final step before a driver is hired.

“Clearly things have changed; the dynamics of our businesses have changed, the types of services and businesses they are getting involved in are evolving, so we have to make sure our programs and services keep pace and provide direction to make sure our members are keeping pace with what’s happening in our environment,” says Parra about the tools UMA offers members.  

Additionally, developing an excellent training program not only helps operators set the tone for what is expected, but also some, like Dipert Tours, to hire people with no prior experience.

“We have spent a great deal of time and effort developing a driver training program that trains individuals, with no previous experience, appropriately,” says Dipert-Brown. “We honestly believe our training prepares them better than any training they may have received somewhere else.”

In fact, training appears to be the last step to hiring a quality driver. This final step gives operators one last chance to determine if an applicant will or will not cut the mustard.

“The training program is where the applicants make it or not,” says Randall. “We bring about double the number of people in for the positions we have open, and typically, about half will fall out of the program.”

5. Employee retention
While hiring is an inevitable part of any operation, the best way to limit the amount of drivers you need is to develop a retention program. Retaining drivers begins with creating a great environment, which makes drivers feel at home and part of the team, according to the operators we spoke to.

Our experts add that competitive pay, health care and retirement packages are good jumping off points, but creating a program that rewards drivers’ performance is also important.

“We have a bonus program, which focuses on the safety of the individual and is based on accident/incident, as well as ride-along reviews where there is a host of procedures and policies they are measured on,” says C&J’s Lesniak.

The operation awards bonuses to drivers twice a year based on miles, and recently handed out $19,000 in bonuses for the first half of the year, according to Jalbert.

Meanwhile at Anchor, Stancil says the operation recently began the “Driver Care Program,” where drivers are contacted regularly via telephone to discuss any needs or issues they may be having. The goal is to not only touch each driver, personally, but be clear that they are an important part of the team.

Post-trip, Anchor also sends out a short, 12-question survey to its customers to find out how much they enjoyed their experience, including their interaction with the driver.

“When a driver is specifically mentioned in the positive feedback, we give those drivers a copy of the survey, a $10 gift card and tell them thank you,” Stancil explains. “The importance of a retention program is that we have already invested a lot of time and energy in the drivers we have hired, and it is becoming increasingly harder to replace them. This is very tough market for us to find quality drivers.”