My 17-year-old daughter was recently hired as a waitress by a national family restaurant chain. In spite of the fact that she has worked in restaurants previously, including stints as a server, she had to complete a four-day training program before serving customers at her new job.

Topics covered included menu composition, serving procedures, clean-up duties and customer interaction. In addition to videos and workbooks, the program involved one-on-one coaching by “trainer” waitresses. New hires had to pass a written test each day. She was, however, paid for the training time.

When she first told me about this I thought it sounded a bit extreme. After all, she's only serving salads, sandwiches, dinners and desserts. What's the worst that could happen? Spill a plate of mashed potatoes and gravy and perhaps ruin someone's new outfit?

But then I thought about the big picture: customer safety (remember when someone was badly burned after spilling coffee at a major fast-food chain?), employee safety, the company's commitment to quality, and the need for efficiency. I began to realize how our industry presents a disturbing paradox when compared to my daughter's experience.

In previous columns, I've expressed my enthusiasm for my work. As a risk engineer for a global insurance company I have the opportunity to peek inside many private and for-hire trucking operations. In the past 20 months with Zurich, I've easily made over 100 carrier visits. I've seen many best-practices programs in action, as well as recurring safety issues that still need to be corrected.

I have seen some wonderful programs. Take, for example, the expedited shipment carrier with a dedicated trainer and classroom that provides a three-day program using PowerPoint, as well as written tests with required minimum scores. Then there's the bulk petroleum products carrier's “Professional Transport Driver” workshop for drivers after their first 60 days on the job. Even though drivers had two weeks of on-the-job training, they often didn't know what questions to ask until after they'd been working a while. Hence, the follow-up program.

Unfortunately, however, most of the carriers I've visited have not had such structured training programs. When I ask fleets to tell me about their training programs, I often get responses such as, “We have a one-day review of company policies and procedures.” It turns out that much of that “training” day is spent filling out driver qualification forms or undergoing physical exams and substance-abuse tests.

Before you dismiss this column as more idyllic ranting, let me assure you I regularly spend time with drivers. Many of you may also know that my early years in the industry were spent as both company driver and owner-operator. From these experiences I can tell you with certainty that drivers are eager to learn more about our businesses. Here's why:

  • It helps them feel that they're an important part of the team.

  • They don't like to ask other drivers “dumb” questions.

  • They want to learn “best practices” that will increase their safety on the road and help them earn more money.

  • Training makes them feel that management really cares about their success as drivers.

We must realize that we're in the people business. We must invest in our most important asset — and I'm not talking about the iron and rubber parked outside.

I'm asking you to take a close look at your driver training. Does it provide drivers with the essentials needed to do the job safely and efficiently? Does it require behind-the-wheel competency, including written or performance-based tests? Does the program include a refresher course, or programs to cover new issues?

Even more important: Could you describe your program to a jury without being embarrassed?

Jim York is a senior risk engineering consultant at Zurich Insurance, Fredericksburg, Va.