Recruiting and retaining employees has long been a struggle within the bus and motorcoach industry. But with the devastating impacts of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to pull out all the stops when it comes to finding creative ways to both hire and keep quality employees.
What COVID has done to the industry
According to a study by John Dunham & Associates for the American Bus Association, the motorcoach industry took a massive hit in 2020. In 2018, the industry generated a reported $15.35 billion in revenue. It provided nearly 98,000 full-time equivalent jobs. The study showed that all charter bus services were canceled from March until July 2020, and as of September 2020, scheduled service operations were estimated to be down between 70% and 80%. Commuter operations were down between 80% to 90%.
The report states that the industry was facing a shortage of commercial drivers and mechanics even before the shutdown.
“These employment impacts on the industry will be long lasting. For motorcoach operators in general, even prior to this crisis, the industry was facing a shortage of both commercial drivers and qualified mechanics,” the report states.
“These positions are not easily replaced and require both the investment of time and money to procure,” the report continues. “As a result of the crisis and its duration, motorcoach operators report the critical loss of both drivers and mechanics, and in some cases these employees were recruited by public transit agencies who received relief funding under the CARES Act. For charter operators, in addition, most companies are reliant on trips and events that are scheduled months, or even years, in advance. Therefore, short term grants/loans pursuant to the CARES Act, including the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Impact Disaster Loans, have not been effective in retaining necessary employees and sustaining these essential transportation businesses.”
Driver recruitment and retention specialist Lynn Sansone shares this sentiment.
“We already had a shortage in the industry,” says Sansone, VP of the consulting firm On Your Mark Transportation LLC. “But now, we’ve lost a lot of drivers to other industries. They had to get by during COVID, and with so many operators completely shut down, they were forced to leave.”
The question then becomes, “how do we get the majority of these drivers to come back to the industry?” asks Sansone.
Are your recruitment and retention efforts enough?
Sansone says owners and managers need to up their game when it comes to driver recruitment. While the old ways of doing things — posting on job boards and job recruitment websites — is still important, more focus should shift to social media and bonuses, she explains.
“There are several driver groups on Facebook, and that’s a good place to start,” Sansone says. “Owners and managers really need to get involved in these driver groups. This will give you key insight into what the drivers are thinking and what they are looking for.”
These pages are also great places to share job openings — and to find drivers who might be looking for jobs.
When it comes to posting job openings, make sure you are responsive, Sansone suggests. And although it may seem like an obvious suggestion, be sure your responses are kind and respectful. A timely response is also important. Drivers will not wait days for a response to their questions, she adds.
“Competition is fierce, and you need to do everything you can to stand out,” Sansone explains.
Owners may also need to recruit drivers to come in on a part-time basis, especially since many previous employees might now be working in other industries.
“As always, don’t allow dispatchers to play favorites, or have some drivers sitting more than others,” Sansone says. “If you hire part-time, be careful not to over hire and leave some sitting.”
“And as things pick up and grow, you can get employees in more full-time when they can sustain a living again as a professional driver,” she adds.
Next up: sign-on bonuses. Sign-on bonuses are a great way to recruit new drivers. Even better, utilize your current drivers to help recruit. Drivers can use the bonuses as a tool to help them recruit other drivers they meet who want information on your company.
“Owners and managers will go farther by using their current employees’ connections,” Sansone says. Their drivers will likely know others in the industry, and if they are happy in their job, they can share that with others. Often, drivers who are not happy with their own company, will come to your bus with your driver to ask how they like working for your organization. If your driver can let this possible recruit know your company is offering a sign-on bonus, that will help catch the ear of the recruit.
This speaks to the next key point, says Sansone — taking care of your current employees.
Keeping your employees happy is important to retention.
“People like to be heard,” says Sansone. “Talking to your current drivers, listening to their ideas, getting their feedback. These are all things you can do to help them feel like they are being heard.”
Sansone suggests bringing in an outside firm to sit and ask questions of the current driver pool. “Drivers will feel they can be more open if they can give their opinion to an outsider in an anonymous way,” she says. “Many times, we hear, and you will see on Facebook posts, that drivers feel companies will play favorites with work assignments, or other issues that owners and managers may not be aware of.”
Owners might also consider offering referral bonuses to employees who bring in new drivers. One way of facilitating this, Sansone suggests, might be printing business cards for your employees that they can then pass out to possible recruits for their referral bonus. These business cards should have the contact name, number, and email to the person in charge of driver recruitment in your organization. Even better, they should include your driver’s names on them.
Business cards are fairly inexpensive, but if you do not want to go that far, Sansone suggests leaving a blank where the driver can write in their name and other possible contact information. Remember, these cards may be the first introduction that a recruit has to your company. If they look low quality, like they were printed on a home computer, you are leaving the impression that the recruit isn’t worth the time and money to do things right.
It is also important that the company pays the referral bonuses that they offer their own drivers, or the company runs the risk of losing the recruit, as well as their current driver.
More than ever, it is important to “catch” a driver doing positive things for your organization, Sansone explains. So many companies have a wall filled with “Don’t do this-"type memos, with items telling drivers what they cannot do. How about a “Wall of Fame” filled with thank you notes from customers, or other positive items, she suggests. Ask your drivers to share their pictures from their trips so you can post them on your social media. If you see them post something positive in one of the driver groups, ask if you can share it to your company page, as well. Also, if you “catch” a driver doing positive things, do not be afraid to have a simple $25 Visa Gift Card, or restaurant card handy. It does not take a large amount to tell someone you appreciate them.
Speaking of social media, what does your company’s social media say about your organization? Many recruits will do their own inspection of your company by reading your social media posts and looking at your website. Is your website up to date? Are you posting consistently about positive things on social media? Most important, is your social media clear of any political or religious leaning? You may not be in favor of a particular political party or religious group, but those thoughts should never cross into your company’s social media, Sansone says.
Also to consider: are your website and social media platforms full of pictures of your pretty buses, or do you show happy employees involved in activities, too?
Making sure you have positive reviews is also imperative. Are you using Google My Business, where customers can leave positive reviews about your organization? When an employee comes to you to say they were happy with something you did for them, you may want to ask if they can post a positive review about your organization. This is important for other places as well, such as Indeed.com and Glassdoor.com, she explains.
Another possibility might be for the large bus and motorcoach associations to offer scholarships to get people interested in the industry, Sansone suggests.
“Possibly paid training or scholarships to pay for your CDL or medical certification,” she says. “These might be ways to a least get some interest.”
Listening is key to retention
As previously stated, listening to current employees is a key way to keep them happy in their jobs.
Owners might also consider offering retention bonuses as an incentive to keeping current employees on board.
“It’s so hard right now because we don’t know what lies ahead,” Sansone says. “And while things are starting to pick up, we are only at about 50 percent capacity right now. We all are just learning together. “But the driver groups are just amazing because you can learn what people are thinking out there. And that is so important. Owners and operators need to really listen and respond to what’s important to drivers.”
How do I fund all of this?
“When it comes to bonuses, it’s surprising how far a little appreciation goes,” Sansone says. “Recruiting bonuses are paid out over time, not all at once, so if the new recruit helps you to run equipment that would have been sitting, they are helping to bring in new work.”
Now is the time to set your rate accordingly so you can pay competitive wages and all the extras, such as retention and recruitment bonuses.
And train your office sales staff to be salespeople, and not just “order takers.” There are things your company does to service your customers, and your staff need to make those distinctions clear to your clients, and not just drop your price to meet competition.
“So many of these suggestions, other than the bonuses, are low-cost, or no cost,” Sansone says. “Maintaining your website and keeping up with your social media, returning phone calls, and responding to emails don’t cost you anything but time, and they will all pay dividends when those buses are rolling with an increased driver pool.”