Retention starts at the top

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There is an old management axiom that when something is everyone’s job, it is no one’s job. Driver and contractor retention is or should be part of the job description for everyone working at a motor carrier. Yet, because it is everyone’s job, few people will claim responsibility for retention.

Many carriers appoint a retention manager, often called a driver advocate. Such a move is an attempt to improve retention by focusing one person’s full time attention. If there is a more thankless job in trucking than being a driver advocate, I don’t know what it would be. Those brave souls who hold this job title have my sympathy.

The problem is that if a carrier has turnover problems to the extent that it designates a full-time retention manager, there are fundamental problems in the organization that are usually beyond the power of the retention manager to fix.

Suppose a driver complains to a retention manager about being asked to wait at a customer’s dock for six hours without compensation. The driver arrives on time, but the customer simply had other trucks that needed to be unloaded first. The customer won’t pay for the waiting time. The carrier doesn’t pay the driver because its policy is to pay drivers for waiting time only if it collects a charge from the customer.

Other than sympathizing with the driver, there isn’t much the retention manager can do. If he authorizes pay for the driver, every driver in the fleet will be at his door demanding pay in similar situations. He can ask sales to ask the customer for the money to pay the driver, but sales likely will make no more than a half-hearted attempt. Salespeople have an aversion to confrontation with customers. If there is a pattern to this behavior by the customer, he can’t direct operations to minimize the number of loads hauled for this customer. Nor can he direct traffic to raise the rates for the customer and use the extra money to pay the driver waiting time on these loads.

In fact, the only person at most carriers who can make these types of decisions is the company’s president. Carriers that have made the transition from high to low turnover have usually done so because the president is focusing his attention on improving all facets of the operation.

A company’s president can’t improve driver retention by himself, of course. It requires all facets of the carrier to take responsibility on how their functions impact driver job satisfaction, not just operations. Operations can perform a dispatch flawlessly, but the driver may experience job dissatisfaction during the load if:

  • The truck breaks down in route and maintenance is slow to react.
  • The customer delays the driver for hours for no apparent reason.
  • The driver is not paid on time with no explanation.
  • When the driver calls in to complain about not getting paid, he is put on hold until he hangs up.
  • The driver’s wife calls him to complain about not getting reimbursed for a medical bill.
  • The driver returns to the terminal to take a shower only to find it dirty.
  • The driver receives a warning letter from safety with no explanation or method of appeal.

These are just some of the examples of how functions other than operations can affect retention. Even building maintenance can created a favorable or unfavorable impression with drivers.

In 2004, the driver shortage likely will become even more severe than it was before the downturn. The uptick in the economy will increase demand for trucks. This will be coupled with a decrease in capacity as the new hours-of-service regulations further restrict driving time. Carriers will be competing for drivers, and no carrier can afford to lose its drivers to competitors.

The time to start working on retention is before your company is hit with a loss of drivers. Recognize that most carriers will not improve their retention without senior management leading the charge. Executives must impress upon every facet of the organization that they must treat drivers well and respond to problems. But more important than responding to problems is anticipating them and minimizing their occurrence. So driver and contractor retention is truly one of those jobs that must remain everyone’s responsibility.