Life's gotten a lot better for team drivers since the classic Hollywood depiction of them in the 1940 film “They Drive By Night.” In that melodramatic tale, two brothers take turns trying to make a living pushing a primitive produce rig over deadly two-lane roads during what really were hard times in California.

Unlike Joe and Paul Fabrini, the truckers portrayed by George Raft and Humphrey Bogart resigned to abysmal pay and miserable working conditions, today's team drivers are by all accounts handsomely compensated and generally well looked after by their employers.

Let's face it. Team drivers have it pretty good. They get to split high mileage pay. They get to drive very late model “Condo” sleeper cabs. They get to haul “no-touch” freight. Get the idea?

But that's if they want to drive team. Truckload fleets, be they for-hire or private operations, already have enough trouble finding solo drivers. Team drivers are in even scarcer supply.

Fortunately for these fleets, just as not every driver is cut out to run team, not every shipper needs its freight delivered as quickly as team service can move it.

That means fleets can pay teams more and put them in premium equipment to keep them happy, yet pass those added costs on to their customers with an “upcharge” for team delivery.

When considering the role teams play in moving freight, there are two other key considerations to bear in mind.

NIGHT AND DAY

First, no matter how much technology has improved the productivity of truck operations — be it satellite tracking or load optimization software — there are still loads that just have to be driven by night and day to arrive on time.

Second, just as there are drivers who would have to be drafted by the Army before they'd submit to being yoked to a team, there are others who would not be in trucking if they could not be part of one. Of course, such teams are usually made up of relatives, by birth or marriage.

Far from being anywhere near the end of any road, team drivers today occupy an important operational niche within many truckload fleets. And they constitute the majority of drivers in those TL carriers whose business rests on selling dependable scheduled service to shippers or receivers.

The thing to remember with teams is they are not something to toy with. A fleet must determine if they are a critical aspect of their operation or at least a key component of it. If either is the case, the fleet had better be prepared to work hard — and pay well — to find and keep them on board.

What's more, fleets have begun to recognize that the value of teams extends to marketing their availability to shippers. Expediting is the watchword.

For example, earlier this year truckload giant Schneider National began marketing its new “Expedited Services” program as offering experienced team drivers to make fast, just-in-time delivery of time-sensitive freight, as well as high-security commodities.

“By using our Expedited Services,” says David Barton, director of expedited services for the Green Bay, WI-based carrier, “customers get their product to market on time while controlling any security measures needed to protect and monitor their freight from pickup to delivery.” And he says the program benefits Schneider by allowing the carrier “to effectively become partners” with its customers.

While team drivers are the centerpiece of the expedited program, Schneider also dedicates other human resources to ensure its success. The program is divided into major commodity groups, with each assigned its own customer-service rep. There are also dedicated “transportation planners” behind the scenes charged with ensuring all expedited loads are assigned and delivered on time. Each load is traced every two hours via Schneider's special expedited/high-security tracking system.

Schneider's recruiting pitch to teams is straightforward. Among the tangibles offered in addition to the carrier's regular driver benefits are assignment to a 1998- to 2000-model tractor; a 3¢/mi. team “premium”; average weekly miles of 6,000 to 6,500 mi.; and average haul lengths of 1,500 to 1,600 mi.

Another truckload fleet pitching its teams as a special service offering is Iowa City, IA-based Heartland Express. The carrier, which primarily runs lanes between customer locations east of the Rockies, as well as select service to western states, says its team operation is offered “on a contractual basis to meet special needs.” No doubt recognizing the role teams play in providing a premium service, Heartland recently upped its pay to 40¢/mi. (39¢ base pay plus safety bonus).

Offering another twist on team marketing is Linden, NJ-based Gilbert Express. The 48-state dry van carrier last month launched its new LTL Express Service out of its Los Angeles terminal to a 37-state region east of the Rockies.

Gilbert is relying on team drivers to provide the nonstop service, which it says will eliminate break-bulk delays, cut transit times, and reduce cargo loss and damage claims. Depending on exactly where a shipment is going, Gilbert says its teams will deliver the goods cross-country in three to five days.

SELLING POINT

Team service is also a selling point for Chattanooga-based Covenant Transport, which states it operates the industry's largest fleet of team-driven tractors. According to Tommy Atwood, the truckload carrier's supervisor of team coordinators, about 49% of its 6,000-strong driving force consists of team drivers.

“The loads they haul are all advertised to be at their destination anywhere in the country within three days,” Atwood points out. “That's a selling point for us. On the other hand, runs involving less-expedited freight are better suited for solo drivers. You have to have both.”

While Covenant is currently paying solo drivers in a range from 25¢ to 31¢ per mile, teams start at 36¢ to 46¢ split per mile. Teams can earn a top pay rate of 49¢ after 48 months with the carrier.

Atwood says the potential for high pay helps attracts teams to the carrier. “When the freight is real heavy,” he points out, “teams can earn more than $125,00 a year.” He notes that a typical Covenant team will run 225,000 miles a year.

Helping keep team mileage high is a 7,000-unit trailer fleet equipped with both 53-ft. dry vans and reefers. Covenant points out to teams that because it “can haul just about anything” in its reefers, a team can head out to the West Coast with any kind of dry shipment and head back full of refrigerated produce.

Naturally, Covenant works hard to keep its teams happy. Atwood notes that the carrier has a 25-person driver relations department that drivers can turn to when issues arise with dispatching or other departments in the company. “We're here to help our drivers anyway we can,” he adds.

Atwood says that Covenant recruits drivers from several sources. “We have our own driver-training school in Stuttgart, Arizona, that helps feed us new drivers. We also use outside recruiters who pitch grads from other schools. And we offer what we call the family plan. If one of our drivers brings in a new CDL driver-recruit, we will put them together so the experienced driver can teach the new one.” In addition, Atwood's team coordinators work to help interested solo drivers transition into team drivers.

ROOM FOR BOTH

At Joplin, MO-based Contract Freighters Inc. (CFI), “there's room for both solo and team drivers,” says president Herb Schmidt. As for why CFI uses teams at all, he cuts right to the chase. “It's more difficult for us to coordinate relays, and solo drivers don't like them anyway because they often have to give up a load after running just 500 miles or so. Teams are just the cleaner way to move expedited freight.

“On the other hand,” Schmidt continues, “customers who don't want the freight that fast don't have to pay the additional charge for team service that covers its higher labor cost. In those cases, our solo drivers will move it fast enough for them.”

Far from seeing less need for either type of driver, Schmidt predicts the industry will see an uptick in the demand for both solos and teams. CFI currently fields some 1,750 solo drivers and 250 teams.

He says the team count at any given time will reflect how much team freight is moving through the system. “To make the most of teams, you have to have the miles and the priority dispatch in place to support them. There is more solo freight out there,” he adds, “but having a team operation for customers needing it is a nice niche to be in.”

CFI pays company driver teams up to 40¢ per mile and owner-operator teams up to 84¢ per mile. To help bolster its recruitment efforts, the carrier pays a $1,000 bonus for each experienced driver or team hired as a result of a driver referral. And no doubt with an eye toward developing more teams, CFI offers two weeks of “spouse training” in a truck equipped with an automatic transmission.

Another truckload firm using teams to expedite freight is Mondovi, WI-based Marten Transport Ltd. According to Don Hinson, vp-operations, Marten specializes in both time-sensitive and temperature-controlled freight. The fleet is also very picky about drivers, with good reason. It has a reputation to uphold. Marten has been awarded first place in the Truckload Carriers Assn.'s annual safety contest for the past four years.

About 8% of Marten's 1,850 drivers are part of teams. Hinson says Marten primarily uses teams to serve customers with specific expedited freight moving from the Midwest to the West Coast.

CRITICAL MASS

“We use our teams in a traditional manner,” he notes, “that is, we try to keep them in pretty structured lanes. We also use teams in dedicated operations for specific customers. Having well-defined lanes is important to support the critical mass of equipment involved.”

Hinson says Marten “would like to grow” its team population to meet increasing shipper demand for expedited service.

“We have satellite-tracking systems and load-optimization software to help boost our efficiency,” he points out. “But sometimes you need teams. It can come down to a time-distance equation that only they can meet.”

While keeping its safety reputation firmly at the fore, Hinson says Marten is “aggressively recruiting” teams. “It is difficult to find and keep any kind of driver,” he admits. “Plus, we have a tremendous emphasis on safety here.”

But having the majority of its teams made up of husbands and wives helps keep safety a priority. “We find driving team is attractive to people who want the companionship of their spouse while working, and the ability to tap into tremendous earning power that pooling their pay brings.”

Like CFI's Schmidt, Hinson prefers teams to relaying expedited freight. “Relaying requires building up traffic lanes in both directions,” he points out. “It can be very difficult to maintain a consistent lane balance, which is critical for relays to pay off.

“If a load is behind schedule due to weather conditions or some other problem, we look at a team to take it over,” says Hinson. “Absent that, we will initiate a series of relays to get it back on track. So, we look to our teams to handle both predictable expedited traffic and emergency recoveries.”

Hinson says Marten sweetens the pot for teams by “offering a mileage rate 3¢ above and beyond our standard rate and putting them in new equipment that is typically cycled out every two years.”

Helping smooth the interpersonal side of the business, each team is assigned to a specific fleet manager. “Each fleet manager is both the drivers' supervisor and their representative within the company. They make sure the team is getting adequate miles and every opportunity to succeed along the way.”

BACKBONE

While teams are an expected component of any for-hire truckload carrier seeking expedited freight, they can also be the backbone of any carrier dedicated to fast delivery.

A good case in point is the private fleet fielded by Wilsonart International, the Temple, TX-based manufacturer of decorative laminates for homes and commercial applications.

According to transportation manager Tommy Williams, Wilsonart's been running a team operation for 41 years. It has 54 team-driven company tractors and its own trailers dedicated to delivering finished product to 17 distribution centers, as well as customer sites.

The mission of the driver teams is straightforward: complete delivery anywhere within 48 hours. And that's because Wilsonart promises all its customers that product will be delivered within eight to ten days from when an order is placed.

That amounts to a real competitive edge for Wilsonart, given that the laminate industry's standard for delivery is usually measured not in days, but in weeks. To help trim delays, backhauls are secured before the trucks roll out of the terminal.

According to Williams, Wilsonart's driver turnover rate hovers around 2%. The fleet even keeps a waiting list of applicants seeking to get onboard. What's more, he says the average team has 14 years with the company between them.

“Drivers have a stake in how well this company does,” Williams notes. “We offer a generous benefits package that includes profit sharing. If the company does well, so do the drivers. They know they aren't just delivering a load.”

There's no arguing that all sorts of technological improvements have helped boost trucking productivity in recent years.

But just as when Raft and Bogart drove across the silver screen six decades ago, sometimes the fastest way to haul the goods is still to put two good drivers in one cab.

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