When looking to fill the driver's seat, first look inward.

It's been a long time since all the economic indicators have aligned themselves so favorably for trucking.

So strong is demand that a number of trucking companies report having problems meeting it. They say there are simply not enough drivers to get behind the wheel.

But recent research casts doubt on that assertion. According to a study conducted by the Gallup Organization for the ATA Foundation, the driver shortage is greatly exaggerated. (See Dateline News.)

What we are talking about, plain and simple, is a management shortage. "The recruiting machine works," said Sherry Bass, director of driver recruiting for U.S. Xpress. "The retention machine is what's broke.

Fleets are doing more to jack up pay and improve working conditions. But is it enough? Listen to what the drivers are saying.

The color of money. Money attracts. But it isn't everything. More important is the image of the company and the driver's role in it. Linda Nodland left a better paying job to come to work for Conway Western Express because of the image the company had established of treating its drivers with dignity.

All in the family. "Nobody wants to be treated like a number," says Roy Smith, a 28-year veteran driver for United Parcel Service out of Atlanta and, like Nodland, a member of the America's Road Team. "We want to be treated with respect."

Companies, particularly as they get bigger, have to fight that trend, agrees Lenord Bean, who retired from Eaton Corp. earlier this year with more than 4.3-million miles without an accident. His record earned him driver of the year honors from PacLease and the Truck Renting and Leasing Assn. "The big companies are hiring so many at one time that it's easy to treat them as numbers."

That's the thanks I get? "Drivers are not shown enough gratitude," says Smith. "We're like everybody else. We want a `thank-you' for a job well done."

Home, home on the road. While some drivers like extended tours of duty, others want to get home more often. Companies that know more about their drivers' preferences come out ahead.

What's up dock? Problems at shippers' and receivers' loading docks continue to aggravate drivers. Interview drivers about the hot spots and send out sales reps with drivers to fix the problem.

Talk to me. Drivers want to know what the fleet is doing and how they fit in. Good communication should be frequent, honest, and in person.

"Today, too many trucking companies don't talk to the drivers the way they should," says Bean. "Too many assign you to talk only to dispatchers. I know they're busy, but they should lay a little bit aside and talk to the drivers. Dispatchers won't relay the message."

Go further. More and more companies are creating a role for drivers in the business, whether in spec'ing the truck or in customer service. Again, Con-Way uses its drivers to make customer visits with its sales force. "When we're involved, our productivity and our morale go up," Nodland says.

Make it safe. Don't ask drivers to compromise their commitment to safety.

Trucking executives would do well to keep in mind that the person who delivers their profit goals is the same person who delivers their freight.