Turnover among truck drivers has become as big a problem as finding qualified ones.
In the first quarter, turnover at large truckload fleets hit 97 percent, up from an annualized rate of 90 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA). Turnover at less-than-truckload (LTL) fleets—historically much lower than in the truckload sector because of shorter driving distances that result in a better work-life balance—has reached the highest level in more than seven years, increasing to 15 percent in the first quarter from 10 percent in the prior quarter. Most of the truckload and LTL turnover is caused by driver "churn," the practice of jumping from one fleet to another.
Now a new driver satisfaction study has found that driver defections are not due to any one specific factor such as pay, benefits, more home time, or the respect of their employers or colleagues. Rather, they are caused by the failure of trucking companies to deliver on promises made during the recruitment or the orientation process.
The study was conducted by Stay Metrics, a South Bend, Ind.-firm that helps fleets with driver retention. Stay Metrics interviewed 1,000 drivers at 10 truckload and expedited truckers. Those responses were then analyzed by researchers led by Dr. Gitta Lubke at the University of Notre Dame 's Mendoza College of Business. The study concluded that new drivers felt a major disconnect between what they were told during recruitment and orientation and what they experienced once behind the wheel.
These unmet expectations surfaced quickly, according to the study. Half of the drivers surveyed left within nine months of being hired. Of those who quit within that nine-month period, most left within six months, even before they could be fully integrated into the corporate culture, according to the report.
"Somehow drivers feel as if what they are experiencing isn't what they signed up for," said Tim Hindes, CEO of Stay Metrics.
Hindes said there isn't a single inflection point for driver angst. It could be that a driver was promised a new rig and instead got a used one. Or that a driver was told he'd drive a certain route and was dispatched on another, less-attractive route, he said.
Hindes said the respondents were comprised of drivers normally away for days, sometimes weeks at a time.
Experts say such behavioral patterns are symptomatic of an industry where critical labor is in short supply. Estimates of the shortage of qualified drivers range from 30,000 to as high as 180,000. The July 1 enforcement of the new driver "Hours of Service" rules, which reduce a driver's workweek and cut the number of truck miles driven, has further increased demand for available drivers.
Good drivers know that opportunities will be abundant amidst a buyer's market for their services. As a result, they are more likely to jump at the first sign of disillusionment.
"Drivers do not perceive the 'change penalty' as very high," said Gordon Klemp, founder of the Kansas City-based National Transportation Institute (NTI), a firm that tracks driver employment and compensation trends. "I can quit this morning, have a tentative job offer this afternoon, and be in orientation next Monday."
The disconnect begins with the recruiter, which is paid to get drivers to commit and show up for orientation. A tight labor market may prompt more recruiters to "overpromise" in order to land drivers, according to Klemp. A positive orientation program can build a driver's motivation, but the first months behind the wheel can be a difficult learning and adjustment process and lead to driver frustration. Klemp said a carrier that effectively manages those expectations can minimize the frequency of driver turnover during that transition period.
Lana R. Batts, a long-time trucking executive and co-president of Tulsa-based Driver iQ, which provides fleets with detailed information about potential hires, said part of the problems rests with the recruits themselves. "I think drivers hear what they want to hear in the hiring process more than they are misled," she said. "They hear about total wages without fully comprehending how many miles [they] will need to drive and how many weekends, special days, birthdays, and kids' activities they will miss."
Batts said the "realities of life on the road hit after six to nine months," especially for entry-level drivers confronting a new lifestyle and home pressures.
In this new environment, trucking companies need to "re-imagine what recruiting could look like, tailored around delivering on and addressing driver expectations" instead of simply modifying their recruitment and orientation programs, said Hindes.
Stay Metrics, an 18-month-old product of the incubation program at the Innovation Park at Notre Dame, isn't standing still. Hindes said the company is working on building a composite profile of the ultimate truck driver, one who will be qualified, capable, stable, and a perfect match for the fleet he or she engages with. "It would sort of be like the eHarmony of truck drivers," he said, referring to the popular personal online matchmaking service.