The vast majority of on-highway truck fleets are solid but certainly not huge businesses by American standards. The description “mom and pop” still applies to an awfully big group of fleet owners.

And like any small business, these smaller (not “small,” as my first boss in the writing dodge admonished me!) fleets typically can't ladle out the benefits the way, say, a Fortune 500 company can.

However, that has begun to change as the driver shortage (or turnover crisis, if you like) has pushed more fleets to offer benefits beyond good pay and a place to earn it.

Before the economy began its nosedive two summers ago, we had begun hearing of more and more non-unionized fleets, especially in the truckload sector, wielding perks like vacation pay, access to 401(k) retirement plans and medical/dental coverage as carrots to attract quality drivers. Many fleets began offering “benefits packages” for drivers for the first time.

Although there's little noise being made at the moment about the driver shortage as plenty of fleets just struggle to stay open until the economy really bounces back, the need to hire the best company drivers and attract the best owner-operators never really wavers.

Leafing through the recruitment ads placed by carriers in recent driver-oriented publications bears this out. For example, one truckload carrier, which proudly states in its ad that it's “family owned and operated for 71 years,” offers company drivers all these benefits: prescription card plan, vacation/holiday pay, 40l(k) plan, and paid health, dental, vision, life and short-term [disability] insurance.

Trucking is not alone in moving benefits in from the fringe as the drive to get and keep good help has become something of a national quest in our still-young service economy.

Further proof of the need to stay on top of all sorts of perks comes in a survey on retention bonuses released last month by WorldatWork, formerly the American Compensation Assn. and the Canadian Compensation Assn., a nonprofit association for compensation and benefits professionals (www.worldatwork.org).

The group says its latest survey reveals that “employers have indicated that the preservation of key employees outweighs the desire to cut costs in a questionable economy” and as a result, retention bonus programs have remained constant over the past year and have even grown in certain areas.

According to the survey, 34% of 772 responding companies award cash retention bonuses and 45% of those implemented their programs within the past 12 months. These two numbers are identical to the same numbers in the 2001 survey and higher than figures from a 2000 survey, when the economy of course was much stronger.

“The survey shows that preservation of key human capital is more important than saving a few dollars in payroll costs,” says Kay Sandvik Schmitke, manager of surveys & research for WorldatWork.

“The idea of retention bonuses seems to have shifted in the past couple of years from that of a tool used to prevent people from jumping to a more lucrative offer,” she adds, “to a tool used to keep people around when the company falls on hard times.”

That remark ties in smartly with one thing we know of trucking — that about the last thing a fleet owner wants to do is let go a good, dependable safe driver.

And on the other side of the coin, more and more it will be benefits no longer regarded as very fringe that will draw a good driver in the first place.