Starting drivers off right

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David Goodson is a management consultant specializing in the transportation industry. E-mail

I’ll bet you have heard this: “What in the world are they teaching the new drivers in orientation? They don’t have a clue.”

Constantly introducing new drivers and contractors to a trucking company’s operation is a fact of life for most carriers, but few are good at it because they aren’t in the training business. That’s too bad, because a good program’s payback in retention can be huge. Done well, orientation tells drivers that your company is special. Drivers might give you another chance when they hit their first bad bumps. And even if drivers don’t stick around, a well-designed orientation program will make them more productive while you have them.

If a new driver or contractor makes mistakes in the first week, he quickly develops a bad reputation among dispatchers. Meanwhile, the driver who erred won’t blame himself; he blames the company’s poor training. The real goal of orientation, therefore, is to help the driver be successful during his first week or month.

One of the first steps in improving orientation is to discard the notion that drivers coming out of orientation know everything they need to know. Adults don’t learn well in a traditonal classroom setting. They typically don’t ask questions because they don’t want to appear ignorant. And they know too much. If what an instructor tells an adult doesn’t match with his experience, he will usually tune the teacher out. Adults learn:

  • When they are ready to learn
  • Best when the subject relates to something they already know
  • Step-by-step, from the known to the unknown
  • By doing
  • Through repetition

In addition, adults are motivated by success and need immediate feedback to learn effectively.
Treat orientation as just the start of the learning process. Adults usually won’t focus on performing a task until they have to do it. For example, the first time a driver will focus on how to fill out your company’s trip envelope is when he submits one to get paid.
Regardless of how thorough your orientation is, accept that the first time a driver actually has to perform a task, he may have trouble with it.

Moveover, the first time a driver visits a key customer, he probably won’t recall the directions there or all the customer procedures to follow. Dispatchers handle the account all the time, so they tend to assume everyone knows the customer.

One approach that has worked for some carriers is to conduct orientation in the truck. The first day might be spent in the terminal completing all the requirements. Then the driver rides with a driver trainer for one day to one week. While on the road, the trainer covers all the procedures unique to the company.

This approach gives the new driver hands-on experience and immediate feedback. And it puts drivers in a more comfortable one-on-one setting for asking questions. One downside is that many drivers don’t want to spend a night in the truck with another driver. Resolve that by dispatching in and around the terminal or on a quick out and back.

Regardless of the program’s structure and content, accept that many drivers complete orientation with significant holes in their knowledge base. That’s why many carriers assign new drivers to a special dispatcher for their first few weeks. This dispatcher usually oversees a reduced number of drivers so he has time to work with new drivers.

Most carriers find that using a special dispatcher does help the new drivers, but some problems arise when the time comes for reassignment to another dispatcher. Drivers develop some loyality to the special dispatcher and resist reassignment. The benefits may outweigh this complication, but it helps to anticpate the problem.

Whatever you do in the days following a driver’s orientation, try to instill patience and tolerance into your driver management. Otherwise, you could be throwing away some very good drivers just because they learn like adults.