Innovators: Driving diversity

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Berta Moreno, RoadLink Services director of recruitment and retention, has been successful at wooing – and keeping – drivers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The key, she says, is to understand and adapt to their cultural differences.

What if you had a group of drivers that works Sundays, but not Fridays? How about a group that takes off the entire month of December? Or one that leaves the country for two months every year?

These are just some of the challenges Berta Moreno has overcome in order to take advantage of geographic pools of immigrant and minority drivers and owner-operators. Moreno is director of recruiting and retention for RoadLink Services, the Bethlehem, Pa.-based corporate arm of intermodal firm RoadLink USA, which has 50 service centers nationwide, including operating companies in the Midwest, South, East, New England and Pacific.

Focusing on understanding the cultural differences of various ethnic groups has helped RoadLink grow its immigrant driver population from 22 percent in 1994 to 66 percent in 2004, with about 79 percent turnover, Moreno says. A brisk referral program, as well as inexpensive ads targeting specific groups, also means RoadLink spends less recruiting immigrants versus traditional drivers.

“We realized this is how the company was going and that we would have to do some things to make drivers feel comfortable here,” Moreno, who is based in Chicago, says of the company’s ability to recruit owner-operators and drivers from a wide range of ethnic groups, including Hispanic, Bosnian, Somalian, Indian and Middle Eastern.

For each area RoadLink serves, Moreno works with local company managers to determine which ethnic groups have the largest population. She also uses the U.S. Census Bureau website to pinpoint target groups. For example, there is a large Indian population in Northern California, whereas Hispanics tend to populate the southern part of the state. Chicago has a thriving Polish population. The company’s 1,000 owner-operators and 350 company drivers either run within a 50- or 200-mile radius of their home terminal, which can be key in recruiting drivers from family-oriented cultures such as Hispanics and Vietnamese.

About 50 percent of RoadLink’s recruitment is through referrals. “You can’t beat these people for referring friends, uncles, cousins,” Moreno says. On the other hand, “if one leaves, you can lose a lot.” RoadLink’s referral program includes posters and postcards advertising a $1,000 bonus, which pays 50 percent after the new hire has been on board 30 days and the remainder after 90 days. Recently, a RoadLink driver in Grand Rapids, Mich., referred a Somalian driver to the company’s Columbus, Ohio, terminal. Since then, they have added 11 Somalian drivers – all from that one referral.

Another element of Moreno’s recruitment efforts is advertising in non-English newspapers targeted at specific ethnic groups. “I hit the groups I want, and the cost is almost nothing” when compared to mainstream newspapers, she says. For example, an employment ad in the Chicago Sun-Times runs nearly $1,000, but an ad in an ethnic newspaper is usually less than $100. Response can be “hit or miss,” but she believes ads in these targeted papers stand out. “In other papers, my ads get lost,” she says.

Once recruits – who must have a one-year minimum of U.S. driving experience – come on board, retention efforts kick in immediately. Within the first 90 days, drivers go through six meetings. For example, they might meet with the recruiter after seven days, the terminal manager after 30 days and then the recruiter again at 45 days. “We have them come in and see how things are going. If there are problems, we address them,” Moreno says.

Another key to retaining nontraditional drivers is being sensitive to the needs of the various groups, Moreno says. “We don’t have to learn everything about their culture and beliefs, but we need to learn a little something.” As an example, Moreno tells of the first time she attempted to shake a Middle Eastern driver’s hand. “He didn’t know what to do,” she recalls. She later learned that their religion forbids Muslim men from touching women other than their wives.

Educating customers also is critical. “One customer called to say one of our drivers was in his parking lot and he didn’t know what he was doing, but he didn’t want him doing it there,” Moreno says. It turned out it was a Middle Eastern driver who was saying his daily prayers. Now company salesmen make a point of calling or visiting customers to help them better understand drivers’ cultural customs. “Communicating with customers ahead of time is key,” she says.

Getting RoadLink employees and customers past the language barrier is another challenge. Because all drivers know English well enough to get their commercial drivers’ license and follow directions, “it’s not a language thing, it’s a patience thing,” Moreno says. “Some dispatchers think they don’t have the time to dispatch a driver who has limited English.”

To help overcome such issues, RoadLink makes an effort to hire bilingual personnel. For example, the New Jersey and Boston offices – where RoadLink has several Brazilian drivers – have some employees who speak Portuguese. In Los Angeles and Chicago, almost everyone speaks Spanish. But for RoadLink personnel who don’t speak a second language, conversations with some drivers can be difficult, “particularly if there’s an accident,” concedes Woody Yarwood, RoadLink’s director of safety. In that case, the company typically calls in an interpreter. “We’ve adapted very well to it,” he says.

Such accommodations aside, Moreno is quick to point out that the company shows no favoritism to any particular driver group. “We treat all of our drivers the same,” she says. “I don’t treat Hispanic drivers different from a typical American driver.”

Nevertheless, any company that expects to recruit and retain nontraditional drivers must be prepared to make certain cultural concessions. For example, for Middle Eastern drivers Friday is a holy day, but they will work on Sundays. Fortunately, some of RoadLink’s customers were able to accept Sunday deliveries. “Sometimes we have some surprises, but because we’ve been doing this for so long, our dispatchers know what to plan for,” Moreno says.

Complicating matters is many drivers’ desire to return to their native countries for extended periods. Many Hispanic drivers, for example, take the month of December off. And Indian drivers return to India for two months each year. To handle these requests, RoadLink developed a leave of absence policy that allows drivers and owner-operators to be gone for up to three months and still remain on the company’s active list. “They come back and go right back to driving,” Moreno says.

Because of its international nature, RoadLink’s recruitment model goes hand in hand with the intermodal business, Yarwood says. “We’re hauling containers from Taiwan, Japan, China, South America,” he says. Hiring owner-operators and drivers from other cultures “is kind of a natural fit,” he says. “And Berta’s made it work for us.”