Driver diversity is key

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The issue of mexican carriers’ expansion into the United States erupted into public hysteria this summer as the House and Senate voted to prevent President Bush from making good on the United States’ commitment under the North American Free Trade Agreement. As the dispute drags on this fall, we no doubt will suffer a new round of primetime “news” programs about “killer trucks” on the rampage. The message will be clear: Mexican carriers don’t care or know how to operate trucks safely.

Even in today’s politically correct culture, it’s apparently fair game to stereotype certain ethnic groups, and Mexicans are one of those groups. The Mexican carriers I have worked with, however, take tremendous pride in their abilities. I am sure they are deeply insulted by the premise that they cannot operate trucks safely.

The implications of the current controversy stretch far beyond NAFTA, however. Demographic trends dictate that the trucking industry reach out to the Hispanic community for drivers, as the Truckload Carriers Association is doing with its alliance with the National Council of La Raza. The rhetoric in Congress, however, is sufficiently tinged with anti-Hispanic sentiment that it undermines the industry’s efforts to promote diversity.

This sentiment is present within the trucking industry, of course, and for some understandable reasons. Dealing with today’s driver is difficult enough without taking on cultural and language barriers. Plus, it’s easier, unfortunately, to avoid a discrimination lawsuit if you don’t hire minorities at all.

Carriers won’t have that luxury for much longer, however. The near-term growth in the workforce will come from minorities and women. When the severe driver shortage returns – and it will – carriers that learn how to reach out beyond their traditional recruiting bases will have a tremendous edge over those who don’t.

The Hispanic labor force is expected to grow 36.8 percent between
1998 and 2008.

If you already employ minority or female drivers, don’t take comfort in that fact. There is a big difference between having some minority or female drivers on the payroll and having a company that truly embraces them.

Consider your current dispatch staff. How many minorities or females are working with drivers? How many minorities are at an executive level? Most carriers don’t have many minority or women dispatchers or top managers. These positions often come from the ranks of drivers, which historically have been white males. Yet not having minorities or females in dispatch or in management sends a negative message to these drivers.

Dispatch is key because it’s the typical entry point for company managers. I’m not suggesting reverse discrimination. Good dispatchers are in shorter supply than good drivers, so broadening the base isn’t likely to deny anyone a job. In fact, you probably will need to recruit minority and female dispatchers just to fill the ranks.

Look at your operation from top to bottom to determine whether you are creating an environment that discourages minority or female drivers. Do you offer paid time off for – or at least acknowledge in some way – holidays of particular interest in certain ethnic communities, such as Martin Luther King Day or Cinco De Mayo?

Consider bilingual communications. Although truck drivers need to speak and write English, there is a world of difference between a working knowledge of English and fluency. In addition, a driver’s family might not speak or read English. Offering some key documents, such as the descriptions of the company’s benefit package, in a second language goes a long way toward communicating an attitude of reaching out.

You won’t change your company overnight, but now is the time to begin positioning your company for future recruiting efforts.