Stop, thieves!

The numbers have grown so huge that they now are essentially meaningless. In the third quarter of 2005, large truckload carriers suffered driver turnover at an annualized rate of 135 percent, according to the American Trucking Associations. ATA’s quarterly surveys show that the turnover rate for those carriers has dipped below 100 percent only once since 2002.

Given that most trucking operations have a core group of drivers who remain loyal for years, the churn has reached incomprehensible proportions. It’s truly twisted when a trucking executive is proud to have a turnover rate of 80 to 90 percent and ecstatic to reach 40 or 50 percent. And everyone has a story about a driver who abandoned a truck – under load – in a competitor’s yard so he could apply for a job there.

But even if you have grown numb to the numbers, you can’t overlook what happened on Feb. 14. That’s the day a federal judge in Oklahoma City issued a preliminary injunction to prohibit J.B. Hunt from recruiting and hiring drivers working under employment contracts with CRST Van Expedited.

CRST provides commercial driver’s license training for about 70 percent of its driver hires, and another 10 percent of hires come to the carrier with CDLs but no experience. After losing hundreds of drivers almost immediately after training them, CRST in 2003 implemented an employment agreement requiring drivers to stay with the carrier for six to 12 months in exchange for free driver training. CRST then put other carriers on notice that if they hired away drivers under contract, CRST would sue to recover training costs. A few months later, CRST slapped J.B. Hunt with a lawsuit.

It’s not surprising that J.B. Hunt ignored CRST’s threats. According to the record in the case, the Lowell, Ark.-based truckload giant faces 150 percent turnover among its 11,000 drivers, requiring it to hire more than 300 drivers a week on average. Nor is it surprising that CRST would sue to halt J.B. Hunt’s raids on its driver force. CRST suffers 180 percent turnover among its 2,800 drivers, requiring it to hire nearly 100 drivers a week on average. J.B. Hunt’s 160 driver recruiters are under enormous pressure to maintain the flow of drivers, and make about 80,000 calls a week to do so; J.B. Hunt recruiters were even cold-calling pay telephones in CRST’s driver trainee lounges.

While the immediate impact of Friot’s ruling is limited to J.B. Hunt and CRST, many carriers that train their own drivers are certain to pursue a similar legal course to protect their investments. This ruling could force carriers to think twice before trying to poach other carriers’ newly minted drivers.

The decision in favor of an injunction turned mostly on the harm to CRST and the likelihood that CRST ultimately would prevail on the merits. But Friot also recognized a public interest: “At a time of serious and chronic driver shortages, there is a social interest in protecting the lawful means by which industry competitors, such as CRST, have implemented driver development and training programs which enlarge the pool of available drivers and make attractive training and employment opportunities available to individuals who could not otherwise afford to pay the cost of entry into the pool of available long-haul drivers.”

Friot understands the challenge, and gradually the trucking industry is learning as well. Trucking executives are beginning to realize what the aging of the driver force will mean in the years ahead. Absent an expansion of the driver pool, the overwhelming churn will force many carriers out of business.

Individual carriers are adopting tactics to bring in new blood, and ATA and Truckload Carriers Association are leading broad-based initiatives to tap new communities. Friot’s injunction should further support the notion that stealing is no way to do business.