The human element

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It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” -Albert Einstein.


We tend to forget at times that trucking is, at its heart, all about people. The steel, chrome, and ribbons of asphalt, along with terms such as asset utilization, cost per mile, and lane optimization work to obscure the human element inexorably interwoven throughout this industry - the drivers, maintenance techs, dispatchers, load planners, warehouse workers, etc.


And this industry needs people like never before.


Sure, we‘re in economic free-fall right now. But the need for trucks to move freight is always there. Problem is, fewer and fewer people want to take on the jobs our industry offers. There‘s ample reason, of course. Long haul, irregular route truckload carriers offer weeks away from family and friends on the road. Despite the computerization of trucks and equipment, technicians still get dirty and work in shops hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Dispatchers and load planners aren‘t high on the list of job aspirations of many high schoolers either (they‘ll never supplant with rock n‘ roll and movie stardom, that‘s for sure).


Yet bringing new workers into a business is so critical - and that‘s even more so for trucking. This industry is projected to be short 100,000 drivers by 2014 based on freight flow trends and it‘s got a major turnover problem to boot. General business studies have shown that 40% of all new hires leave before the end of six months. In trucking, however, that‘s been amplified - especially in the truckload sector, where turnover of 120% is common.


Alongside just finding new blood and getting it in the door is keeping it once it‘s there - which can be even more problematic. People change jobs far more than they did 20 years (though that trend may decelerate in these uncertain economic times) but even more critically, families today are made up predominantly of two wage earners. And if the job of one spouse conflicts with the other or makes family life difficult, chances are that job will be left in the dust.


Then there‘s the emotional strain trucking puts on marriages and families. I remember talking to truck driver Bill Hutson about this a few years ago. Hutson, who on the side runs a charity called “Table Talk Foundation for Better Living,” told me that he once offered his services as a minister at a carrier where he worked following the death of a driver on the road. He expected to take a lot of calls about the emotional impact of that event. Instead, he got hundreds of calls from truckers whose marriages were disintegrating - due in large measure to so much time spent on the road away from their families.


Professor Jerry Osteryoung from the college of business at Florida State University talked about both of these issues recently - the hiring of new workers and recognizing the importance of spouses and families in keeping those new hires on for the long term. As usual, I‘ll let him take it from here. Professor, the floor is yours:


“Given all of the money that most firms spend on new employees, it is absolutely critical that the recruiting and initial work period process be planned and carefully thought out. Remember also that when you hire an employee or an associate, you are really hiring their family as well. That is, in so many cases, the spouse is the one that has the largest impact on an employee‘s decisions. Too many times I have seen great employees leave because their spouse just was not happy with either the location or the way the company was treating the staff member. Bottom line: You just cannot overlook the importance of a spouse in both the hiring process and the continual well-being of the employee.


Most new workers leave because they discover that their expectations just do not match the actual work. To avoid this discrepancy, applicants must completely understand what the job entails. During the recruiting process, employers should honestly explain the job, and not just tell applicants to read the job description and the employee manual. Both the good and the bad, as well as all the nuances of each job must be explained. If the job requires the new employee to empty the trash, then this must be explained. In addition, opportunities for advancement must be spelled out.


Now, many firms also understand the importance of spouses and families - and should seek to interview both the employee and the spouse before making the hiring decision. These firms really want to evaluate the spouse to make sure they will be supportive of the employee and the company. They clearly understand the role that spouses play as the greatest influencer of the employee‘s morale. However, there are some legal risks with interviewing the spouse so you may want to consider this as compared to the benefits.


Given that over the next five years we will have a large labor shortfall it is becoming even more vital that we keep current employees. The cost of hiring a new employee is just so steep [in trucking, the cost to recruit a new drive runs from $5,000 to $8,000 per person] that keeping spouses supportive can make all of the difference in the world.


Keeping workers engaged is also critical to keeping people excited about work, particularly with new employees. In order to do so, you must adjust your management style to fit the needs of the employee. For instance, to keep Gen Xers (those born after 1979) engaged, you cannot tell them step-by-step how to do the job. Once they have an understanding of the work environment, Gen Xers function best when given only an objective and limited guidance.


While communications are vital for all workers, it is even more critical for new ones. As a manager, you must be able to determine how an employee is doing with respect to their job expectations and satisfaction. Just glibly saying, ‘How are you doing?‘ is not going to cut it. You really need to sit down with each new worker every two weeks and ask them critical questions like, ‘What do you really like about the job and where could we make improvements?‘ Questions like this help you assess the satisfaction of each new hire.


Unaddressed problems just get worse, so if you sense that a new worker is not pleased or is not working out, the sooner you talk to him or her, the better. Sometimes all it takes to improve a new employee‘s job satisfaction is a small tweak here or there. For instance, if a new employee is feeling unappreciated or is not clear on job expectations, a few minor adjustments can easily correct the problem. The point is that new workers should be monitored in order to make sure that they feel appreciated.


There are also some very simple - yet effective - things you can do to keep spouses supportive. For instance, invite spouses to company functions. Whether it is a celebration of a staff member‘s success or a company get-together, the spouse needs to be invited. If they come, fine; if they do not come, that is fine as well. The key is that they have been invited.


The most critical time for a spouse is when they have moved from another city or state to join your company. The employee comes with their credibility intact, but the spouse normally loses everything. In cases like these, it is so important to make sure that the employee‘s spouse feels accepted into the community. The surest recipe for disaster is a spouse that feels isolated and alone. When this happens, they want to leave and move back to where they came from. That‘s why it‘s so important to promote a sense of community or belonging for spouses and families.


With labor becoming more and more difficult to find, you must go out of your way to ensure that you retain your workforce - making sure that you have a process in place to ensure that each new worker feels great about his or her new job and that their spouses are included as well.”


As always, you can reach Professor Osteryoung by email at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com or by phone at 850-644-3372.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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