The driver turnover rate for large carriers, a quarterly statistic issued by the American Trucking Associations, hit a five-year low in 2016, dipping to 71 percent. That’s a mild number for an industry that struggles with retaining its labor force and in recent years has seen turnover rates hang above 100 percent for quarters on end.
However, the retention gains weren’t due to a sudden shift in the industry’s relationship with its drivers. Instead, a weak freight market and loosened capacity dampened drivers’ ability to job-hop. When the market-based forces change course again, as is expected this year, driver turnover rates likely will return to 90-plus percent – if not higher.
But advances in technology, as in all corners of the industry, are providing carriers with new tools to tackle this decades-old problem. Fleets now can take a more scientific approach to retention and attempt to stamp out the problem at its source.
Data gleaned from modern systems such as electronic logging devices and fleet management software allows carriers to use algorithms to track driver behavior and target those deemed at risk for leaving the company.
It also allows carriers to implement scoring and ranking platforms for their drivers – a growing retention tactic for large and small fleets alike.
Having the ability to predict which drivers are on the verge of quitting or implementing driving scoring programs won’t solve fleets’ retention problems outright. However, such strategies can help put a dent in sky-high turnover numbers and save much of the costs and headaches associated with poor retention.
Modern communication methods such as mobile apps and social media also bring new opportunities for carriers to better tackle poor retention rates.
This is Part 5 of CCJ’s Tech Toolbox series, a monthly series running through 2017 that examines technology’s increasing role in the trucking industry and its impact on carriers’ operations. Visit CCJTechToolbox.com to see other installments in the series and special multimedia content. Next month: Technology’s role in maintenance.
Whether carriers use a custom-built system or an industry standard program, predictive modeling is meant to help them lean on the past to predict the future. Relative to retention, this means using data increasingly available to carriers, such as hours of service and mileage, to identify turnover patterns and alert carriers to drivers whose data shows a termination risk. Fleets then can intervene to engage at-risk drivers and potentially prevent their exit.
Providers of such systems, including Omnitracs and StayMetrics, work with fleets to develop a custom program designed specifically around their operational and retention needs. They also can implement a standard off-the-shelf program geared toward smaller carriers whose data sets may not be as unique as those for larger ones. More tech-savvy fleets can build their own in-house predictive models.
Carriers began using predictive analytics and modeling as early as 2004. The systems – and the data that feeds them – have grown much more robust and effective.
“Specifically to retention, we can look at data for drivers that have quit at a company in the past and what led up to it and then use patterns to look for similar patterns going forward,” says Lauren Dominick, head of predictive modeling for Omnitracs. “Red flags usually come up with any variability. People are creatures of habit, and generally when we see variability, it’s predictive.”
Variability in hours and pay are some of the strongest indicators of drivers at risk of quitting, says Dominick.
“They call the driver and open up a nontransactional positive conversation. The main thing is to get the driver to open up and reveal something to follow up on. Whatever stressors that make them likely to terminate – can we remediate those?”
— Lauren Dominick, head of predictive modeling for Omnitracs
Omnitracs “takes any or all data” available from carriers to build and implement a model to help head off turnover, including data on hours of service, trips, mileage, pay and more. The model runs at intervals determined by the carrier, usually on monthly or weekly schedules, but carriers can run the model daily if they choose, Dominick says.
StayMetrics offers a similar platform, tailoring custom predictive analytics programs to carriers’ operations.
Load One uses StayMetrics’ predictive modeling system for its 300-truck fleet. Often, the driver unhappiness issues uncovered by the program are small and can be fixed easily, says John Elliot, president of the Taylor, Mich.-based company. But Load One wouldn’t know to engage these drivers without the StayMetrics system.
“If we didn’t have the survey and the technology, the odds are that drivers will just say ‘I’m done with this, I’m out of here,’ because they didn’t talk with somebody about a little issue that could have nagged at him,” Elliot says. “It helps us identify those things and nip turnover.”
Elliot credits StayMetrics’ platform with lowering turnover by nearly 20 percent over a six- to nine-month period.
Omnitracs’ predictive modeling program assigns drivers a score of between 1 and 100 based on their likelihood to quit; the higher the score, the more at risk. This information is available to carriers via Omnitracs’ Driving Center web application. Carriers receive notifications in the browser-based Driving Center app of high-scoring drivers and the reasons why. The onus then is on fleets to reach out to these drivers, says Dominick.
A typical intervention process could include a phone call from human resources or someone else with “soft skills,” says Dominick. “They call the driver and open up a nontransactional positive conversation,” she says. “The main thing is to get the driver to open up and reveal something to follow up on. Whatever stressors that make them likely to terminate – can we remediate those?”
“Specifically to retention, we can look at data for drivers that have quit at a company in the past and what led up to it and then use patterns to look for similar patterns going forward.
— Lauren Dominick, head of predictive modeling for Omnitracs
Omnitracs also tracks the intervention process to help carriers identify the best tactics for engaging and ultimately retaining drivers. The models grow more fine-tuned and accurate the more they’re used, as they lean on historical data and patterns.
Claremont, N.C.-based Cargo Transporters (CCJ Top 250, No. 209) uses TPI’s Driver Performer program for both driver gamification and predictive modeling. Two weeks a month, the system alerts the 500-truck fleet to five drivers with retention risk factors, says Shelley Mundy, director of recruiting and retention. “Maybe miles have gone down, or fuel mileage has dropped, or there’s a safety issue,” Mundy says. “We try to talk to those drivers and make sure everything is still good to see if there are risk factors we can mitigate.”
After contacting the drivers the first time, the system notifies Cargo Transporters to contact them again two weeks later. “Just to do a follow-up,” Mundy says. “It’s a revolving process that lets us touch a driver maybe before it’s too late.”
Social media outlets such as Facebook, while heavily used in driver recruiting, also give carriers new avenues to market themselves to current drivers and gain valuable feedback and insight from them.
Industry upstarts can do the same with a more polished – and more productive – platform. Tech startup Workhound gathers driver feedback through a browser-based app. It alerts drivers to submit feedback via a text message, which sends them to a basic form where they say how they feel about their job and provide insight into why they feel the way they do.
“What we know is that in trucking, a driver can be happy on Tuesday, upset on Wednesday and decide to turn in their truck on Friday,” says Max Farrell, Workhound co-founder. Drivers submit anonymous feedback to carriers as often as they like. If a driver says he or she is on the verge of quitting, the carrier can request to contact the driver through Workhound and attempt to alleviate the driver’s issue.
“The goal is to use that feedback to take action to address those urgent issues,” says Farrell. The company is doing pilot tests with several fleets, including U.S. Xpress (CCJ Top 250, No. 14) and Southern Refrigerated Transport, part of Covenant Transportation Group (No. 41).
CDL Helpers, another tech startup, provides a similar service. It tracks interactions between drivers and managers and notifies managers should a conflict arise, giving carriers the opportunity to prevent a driver conflict from bubbling into a resignation or a termination.
Carriers also can develop their own proprietary feedback apps. “With more drivers having smart devices either of their own or in-cab, we’re seeing more opportunities to touch drivers through these apps,” says Jerry Sigmon Jr., vice president of operations for Cargo Transporters.
Workflow apps that ease a driver’s daily routine also can be retention tools, says Sigmon, who uses Cat Scale’s app as an example. The app allows drivers to weigh their trucks at a Cat Scale without exiting their cab.
Similar to predictive modeling, driver scoring and gamification systems rely on the river of data generated by ELDs and fleet management software to create a program that allows carriers to score drivers on performance, efficiency, safety and more.
While the systems aid in fleet efficiency and cost savings, carriers also employ gamification programs as retention tools by creating a more engaged driver force, tracking drivers’ progress and rewarding them with bonuses or products.
“The key point with gamification is just having the visibility into the data,” says Omnitracs’ Lauren Dominick. “It draws on the competitive nature of human beings.”
Gamification and scoring systems use fleet and driver data to create a scorecard for drivers, allowing them to compete against their own scores and the scores of their peers. Drivers can earn points within the systems and exchange them for rewards.
“We want to reward you for doing the good things,” says Load One’s John Elliot. “Our return is not going to be operationally driven but retention-driven. We reward drivers, not coerce them. We didn’t want to use it as a carrot to get them to do things operationally for us.”
“If you use data and use analytics and turn it into an interface, gamification then allows drivers to see their progress relative to the expectations that the company has for them.”
— Drew Schimelpfenig, head of Omnitracs Safety Center of Excellence
Load One uses StayMetrics to help manage its gamification program. The carrier’s drivers receive rewards for work anniversaries, every six months on the job, taking employee satisfaction surveys and more. Drivers also receive monthly points for jobs well done, such as no moving violations or cargo claims.
“We do everything on points,” Elliot says. “There’s a slew of categories that drivers can get rewarded on.”
Drivers can cash in the points whenever they like via an online portal. “There’s thousands of items they can get,” Elliot says. “Trips, electronics, clothing, all the way down to movie downloads and book downloads.”
Nussbaum Transportation, CCJ’s 2017 Innovator of the Year, uses Excelerator, a scientific in-house scoring system that creates a four-page monthly scorecard for each of its 300 drivers. Excelerator mostly centers on fuel economy and proper driving techniques, but the Hudson, Ill.-based carrier also credits the program for improving turnover.
“We believe that every driver wants to be a professional,” says Brent Nussbaum, chief executive officer. “When you teach them how to drive more professionally, that is something they can be proud of and is a reflection of our culture and belief that they are not just a truck driver.”
As with its predictive modeling platform, Omnitracs also offers a standard fleet program for driver gamification as well as custom-built options for carrier clients.
The default system, Omnitracs Active Driver Coaching, gives equal weight to scores in compliance, safety, efficiency and fuel use, but carriers can customize the program to change the weights as desired. A composite score is produced based on the scores within the categories.
Via both a web app and mobile app, drivers can view their scores and how they compare fleetwide. The program is relatively new, but Omnitracs’ Drew Schimelpfenig, head of the company’s Safety Center of Excellence, says fleet feedback indicates the system has improved retention rates.
“We believe that every driver wants to be a professional.When you teach them how to drive more professionally, that is something they can be proud of and is a reflection of our culture and belief that they are not just a truck driver.”
— Brent Nussbaum, Nussbaum Transportation CEO
“If you use data and use analytics and turn it into an interface, gamification then allows drivers to see their progress relative to the expectations that the company has for them,” Schimelpfenig says.
Some carriers’ scoring systems aren’t tied to rewards and instead are used as a tool for driver engagement and, thus, retention.
Cargo Transporters uses a driver scorecard but does not issue rewards. Instead, the system ranks drivers in four categories – miles, mpg, safety and on-time percentage – with a 1 to 4 ranking. Each week via a web app, drivers receive their scorecard, which shows them where they rank among the fleet’s 500 drivers and where they rank within their peer group, which is based on equipment type.
The company uses TPI’s Driver Performer platform to manage both its gamification system and predictive modeling program. “We think it adds to their enjoyment or their desire to be with your company,” says Cargo Transporters’ Jerry Sigmon Jr.
Aim NationaLease uses a simple ranking system to alert its 350 drivers regularly of their peer-to-peer status. The fleet uses its PeopleNet-based system to deploy messages to drivers about where they rank on a wide array of common metrics that are maintained in a spreadsheet.
“It pops up and says, ‘Hey, this week you’re fifth in idle time, fourth in incidents’ – it can truly be anything,” says John Reed, chief information officer. “It’s a simple way to keep people engaged. It’s one of those things that keeps us in touch and avoids making drivers feel forgotten.”
Though Aim uses its PeopleNet system to deploy the messages, the carrier built the ranking system itself.
As predictive modeling and gamification reach a more mature state within the industry, carriers increasingly are looking at driver onboarding as a growing area of focus for trucking’s surge in big data.
“Everybody struggles with the first 90 days of employment of a driver,” says Aim NationaLease’s John Reed. “If you get past that, you’ll see the stats are crazy on how much longer retention is – three, five, 10 years. If we can just get to 90 days – that’s the big stat for us.”
Aim developed a system to help engage new drivers. In weeks one, three and five, drivers are contacted by human resources and asked a series of questions. During weeks two, four and six, someone from operations contacts the same drivers. The responses are entered into a system developed by Aim to identify drivers who aren’t happy.
“If there’s a problem, people are emailed, and we handle the problem,” says Reed, whose team wrote the program that tracks the drivers’ responses and triggers emails to those in charge of correcting the issues identified during the surveys.
Load One also stresses drivers’ first 90 days. In addition to regular surveys from StayMetrics to identify frustrations or immediate issues with a driver’s employment, the company is testing an orientation model meant to better engage newcomers.
“A driver senses when a company cares and their time is important,” says Load One’s John Elliot. “Right out of the gate, it sets a good tone for retention.”
Though not as complex as a fleetwide predictive system or gamification, in-cab technology that makes drivers’ jobs and lives easier can aid in retention efforts.
Small amenities such as in-cab television and Wi-Fi will see a surge in coming years, says Cargo Transporters’ Jerry Sigmon Jr. His carrier uses EpicVue to provide drivers with in-cab TV and also equips its trucks with XMSirius Satellite Radio and in-cab refrigerators.
“It’s not just one thing, but a package that we feel helps us with retention,” Sigmon says. “Any time you can help a driver feel more comfortable or take some of the burden or stress away from them, we think that adds to their enjoyment and their desire to be with your company.”
Recent efforts by truck manufacturers back Sigmon’s forecast for greater adoption of in-cab tech. Freightliner now offers as standard equipment in its 2018 Cascadia a preinstalled refrigerator or floor mounts for a refrigerator should drivers choose to bring their own. The truck maker also added mounts for flat-panel TVs as large as 26 inches.
“Drivers are customers,” said Jeremy Stickling, director of human resources and safety for Nussbaum Transportation, speaking at a recruiting conference earlier this year in Nashville, Tenn. “We’re serving them as much as the shipper. It’s a hard mindset to get to, but we try to look at it that way.”
Navistar International also has beefed up the driver-focused amenities in its newest on-highway tractor line, particularly around in-cab comforts. “We have seen an uptick in fleets asking for [APUs and different-sized power inverters] to be installed from the factory, and it is about driver attraction and retention,” says Charles Chilton, Navistar’s on-highway director.
Chilton also sees in-cab Wi-Fi as a system to consider in coming years. “I can imagine having some type of data plan in the truck that the driver can use for their off-time entertainment – connecting with family, watching Netflix,” he says.
Load One provides in-cab Wi-Fi to its drivers, an expense John Elliot says is worth it to battle turnover. “Even if you go to the conservative low end of what it costs to replace a driver, you’re looking at about $5,000 a driver,” Elliot says. Systems that retain just a few drivers a year likely are worth the investment, he says.