Innovators: Agility at large

By offering a career path that starts with non-CDL equipment, Pitt Ohio Express is tapping a wider labor pool, especially women like Carolyn Rhoe, who joined Pitt Ohio from the U.S. Postal Service.

In August 2004, Carolyn Rhoe – a former employee of the U.S. Postal Service – joined Pitt Ohio Express as a delivery van driver, a job that doesn’t require a commercial driver’s license. Recently, Rhoe earned a Class B CDL, qualifying her to drive a straight truck. Eventually, she plans to go through her employer’s training program and get her Class A CDL and advance to a tractor-trailer combination.

“I plan on moving up one step at a time,” Rhoe says.

Rhoe is one of many new drivers that have joined Pittsburgh-based Pitt Ohio Express since 2004, when management began operating delivery vans at its 21 terminals in the mid-Atlantic region. In addition to 25 Sprinter vans, which Rhoe first drove at Pitt Ohio, the carrier’s fleet of non-CDL equipment includes 35 Ford F-800 delivery vans and 40 straight trucks. Pitt Ohio, which specializes in next-day and time-definite less-than-truckload service, also operates 633 tractors and 318 straight trucks that require Class A and B CDLs.

Maximizing productivity
Although smaller equipment has brought many people like Rhoe into the trucking labor force, that wasn’t Pitt Ohio’s initial motivation. Owner and President Chuck Hammel says his main reason for increasing the size of non-CDL equipment was purely economical – to lower costs and increase service in response to trends in customers’ shipping patterns. Managers had noticed a steady drop in the average weight per shipment as more customers use just-in-time, zero-inventories scheduling, making shipments smaller and more frequent.

“We’re not a package carrier because we have these trucks,” Hammel says. “This is a result of what is happening with our customers.”

To date, experience has shown that delivery vans can finish a route in half the time of straight trucks or tractor-trailers, due to better maneuverability in congested traffic and the capability to deliver freight directly to customers’ doorsteps. Overall, the vans save 30 to 45 percent in delivery costs for the targeted shipment size of 200 pounds and under, Hammel says.

“The challenge becomes ‘How do we look at our entire book of business, and separate those shipments that fit on the smaller trucks and have the right density to make it profitable?’ ” Hammel says. “You have to run an operation inside of an operation. That becomes a challenge.”

Management chose its Pittsburgh terminal for an initial market study to determine how to incorporate delivery vans into its daily operations, says Dave Brehl, the terminal’s manager. The company uses its inbound planning software system to identify shipments that weigh less than 200 pounds – the size managers felt would best fit the profile for van shipments. When they began the market study, Brehl says he was surprised to find that 25 percent of shipments fit into that category.

After freight bills are entered into the inbound load planning system, planners and dock workers identify freight and load the delivery vans overnight. Even with software to identify shipments, the freight selection process remains highly manual, Hammel says, because load planners have to consider customer demands. Quite a few customers do not want their freight separated from pallets or skids in transit and delivered at their doorstep.

“It’s been in the test and concept phase, but now that results are coming in, we are planning on how we will roll this out more formally,” Hammel says.

Diverse work force
Along the way, Hammel and other executives recognized the potential for delivery vans to help further diversify Pitt Ohio’s work force, particularly by recruiting more women and minorities. They determined that part-time job opportunities would appeal especially to mothers who could begin work after their children boarded the school bus.

“With the huge driver shortage, everyone is competing for the same resources,” Hammel says. “We thought we would open it up and look in other places.”

To help publicize careers for women, the company in 2004 sponsored a player on Pittsburgh’s National Women’s Football Association team. “We are looking to do that again and perhaps even expand our reach to other cities with the same type of teams,” says Candi Cybator, manager of marketing and public relations for Pitt Ohio Express.

To find qualified candidates, the company also partnered with Pennsylvania Women Work, a nonprofit organization that helps single parents and displaced homemakers find jobs. The company is looking for other sponsorship opportunities for events and organizations that support women in the workplace, Cybator says, as well as recruiting new drivers from the typical sources – driver schools and trade schools.

Central to Pitt Ohio’s driver recruiting efforts are its training and retention programs that offer employees a solid career path. Employees with good motor vehicle records can receive apprenticeship training to move from working at the dock to driving a delivery van, a straight truck and, ultimately, a tractor-trailer after earning a Class A CDL. Pay increases at each level, and workers are paid more per hour for part-time versus full-time employment, says Jeff Mercadante, director of safety.

“I’ll bet we have 600 employees driving a tractor-trailer today who started on a dock,” Hammel says. At Pitt Ohio, everyone has the same opportunity to advance their driving career. “I see a lot of women in trucks today and quite a few in the bigger trucks.”

And as drivers move up, they tend to remain: The company’s annual driver turnover is 5 percent – well below the 2005 turnover rate of 15 percent for LTL carriers, according to the American Trucking Associations.

Business intelligence
Until recently, when it came to finding ways to do things differently, executives at Pitt Ohio Express typically made managerial decisions on an ad-hoc basis. For example, increasing its fleet of delivery vans resulted from straightforward cost accounting and testing the concept at its terminals. Going forward, management now is using sophisticated business intelligence tools to catch trends early – and adapt and innovate faster than its competitors.

Over time, these business intelligence tools will play a key role in understanding freight characteristics and customer requirements for delivery van shipments, says Scott Sullivan, the company’s vice president of information technology services. Each day on average, Pitt Ohio moves 12.8 million pounds of freight in 9,700 shipments for 2,600 customers in the mid-Atlantic region.

“In the future, we’re going to need something to ‘tag’ shipments that potentially could be delivered on a Sprinter, but it’s not clear yet if that’s going to be determined by customer information, shipment detail logic or some combination of the two,” Sullivan says.

To better anticipate customers’ future needs, management recently created two internal groups to act as Pitt Ohio’s research and development team. The first group, a Business Intelligence Competency Center, is composed of four people who use the company’s business intelligence tools to “get inside data to understand customers better,” Hammel says, “and to better predict where they will be going and where they will need us.”

The second group, the Futures Committee, meets monthly to discuss business strategies and trends such as the buying patterns of the younger, next-generation work force, and how to tap new and emerging markets.

However, all of this planning and scheming is invisible to ex-postal worker Rhoe, who is just grateful for the results. Rhoe says she plans to work at Pitt Ohio “as long as they’ll have me.”

Innovators profiles carriers and fleets that have found innovative ways to overcome trucking’s challenges.

If you know a carrier that has displayed innovation, contact Avery Vise at or (800) 633-5953.