INDIANAPOLIS. Many fleets are starting to make significant changes in their approach to recruiting and retaining truck drivers, largely to deal with a generational shift that’s starting to alter the U.S. workforce as a whole. “So much has changed in trucking that it’s almost impossible to expect the same performance out of the next generation of drivers,” Jamie Steele, director of fleet operations/recruiting for truckload carrier Celadon Group, told FleetOwner. “You’re dealing with far more traffic congestion, new regulations, and a public perception of the truck driving career that’s very different from a decade ago.”

Also, the driver pool itself is changing, both in terms of demographics and views concerning work-life balance, Steele explained during an interview here at Celadon’s headquarters.

“Drivers willing to stay out on the road for three weeks or a month at a time are few and far between; they are a dying breed,” he said. “They want more time with their families, but it’s not just about being home – it’s about being home when they need to be home. It’s no good to get them home on a Sunday when their child’s high school graduation was on Saturday.”

Those are just some of the reasons why there’s a growing shortage of drivers, despite persistently high unemployment rates nationally of around 9.6%. FTR Associates’ Driver Availability Index (DAI) actually dropped over the summer, falling 0.5% in June and 0.2% in July. That comes despite declines in the construction and retail industries – two sectors of the economy that compete most directly with the trucking industry for potential employees.

Though FTR said its DAR increased 0.4% in August, it expects the pool of available drivers to become extremely tight by the second quarter of 2011. FTR indicated the industry will beshort about 102,000 drivers in relation to freight demand – despite total in-use truck capacity increasing only modestly to 96% from 93.7% in the third quarter this year.

To make the truck driver position more attractive, Celadon has crafted a home time/vacation policy that acts as an incentive as well. For every 30,000 miles a driver accumulates at Celadon, he receives one week of paid vacation time. Clock in 126,000 miles in a calendar year, and he gets a fifth week of paid vacation – time that the driver can also “cash out” if so desired, Steele pointed out.

“Drivers can bank up to three weeks of vacation, as well, and they can use it where they like it,” he added. “Some carriers restrict vacation to just the home address and one alternate location. Our drivers can use it where they like it. That appeals [especially]to the older ‘nomad’ driver, allowing them to use a week in Seattle to visit their mom, then a week in Detroit to visit their uncle, for example.”

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Celadon also works its routes so drivers are out a minimum of 10 to 14 days before getting home – creating a more “regional” home time structure out of Celadon’s long-haul operation, where the average length of haul still hovers around 900 miles.

The key to making this work is for drivers to live in the main freight lanes served by the company, Steele said. Those are largely the Midwest and Texas, with border-to-border connections to Canada and Mexico. “If a driver lives in Dallas, for example, the chances are very high they’ll be home every 10 days to two weeks.”

Such new arrangements are critical to making driving a truck more attractive as the U.S. workforce undergoes a generational shift. Some 77 million “Baby Boomers” are retiring over the next two decades, and they will be replaced by only 46 million new workers, according to numbers tracked by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD).

ASTD’s research indicates that “Generation X” workers (born between 1965 and 1979) typically value a strong balance between life and work, priding themselves on self-reliance and resourcefulness. Then there are “Generation Y” or “Millennial” workers, born between 1980 and 2000, who are more technologically savvy and desire even more workplace flexibility.

And according to a study by the Boston College Center for Aging and Work, more than a quarter of all U.S. companies have not analyzed the demographics of their workforce. That inaction could potentially lead to a major disconnect in terms of how new workers perform their jobs vs. company expectations.

Steele also noted that “next generation” drivers will need to be educated about the fundamentals of trucking. “Our ‘old school’ drivers typically came from trucking families and so knew the importance of the basics, such as on-time delivery of freight,” he said.

“New drivers are unfamiliar with such industry needs,” Steele continued. “Being 30 minutes late, for example, might not be a big deal to them – ‘Hey, there was traffic.’ Well, 30 minutes late is a big deal to a customer – one we might be doing $10 million a year in business with us. And shippers call you on that and ask how you’re going to fix it.”

Still, even with those challenges, Steele believes the truck driving profession can actually thrive as new workers unfamiliar with its challenges begin to fill the seats of big rigs.

“The freedom of the road appeals to the very flexible work environment most ‘next generation’ workers seek,” he said. “They are not stuck behind a desk or on an assembly line all day – they are out on the road, in a different place every day. Those are just some of the factors that still make driving a truck an attractive career for many workers.”