This story was originally published Dec. 18, 2019.
“From my perspective as head of an organization studying trends in the transportation industry, a shift in truck driver demographics is coming.” I said this to the CEO of one of our larger clients, and he corrected me, “It’s already happened.”
The population of truck drivers in our country is more diverse than it has ever been before. People from all walks of life, every race or ethnicity, are finding their careers in trucking, even as the number of white males (the longtime core demographic of trucking) is diminishing. This diversity will continue to increase.
Currently (with some notable exceptions), transportation companies operate out of a “company-centered” culture. In this model, the needs of the company are critical, and the employees exist only to meet the organization’s needs.
In contrast, drivers are more and more expecting to find what I call a “relationship-centered” culture when they join a carrier. This arrangement sees the company and employees working together and meeting both sides’ needs and objectives.
It is my contention that carriers that can make this shift are the ones who are more likely to survive as businesses moving forward. Those who do not will find that employees will increasingly seem “apathetic.” They adopt this stance when they are operating from a position of distrust. They are not motivated to work toward the company’s goals because they do not trust that the company has their interests in mind. In this situation, the relationship between employees (especially drivers) and companies has collapsed.
To break the cycle, the first step is to recognize it so that we can call it out. Open, honest communication is key here. Explain what is happening specifically with drivers, and make sure they know you are trying to change.
In addition, pick up the speed at which you are diversifying your management teams. When you go to industry trade shows, it seems like the only people of color you see are not from the carriers but, rather, the vendors who serve them.
In contrast, here is what is happening in the driver workforce: as fewer white males are entering the industry, more black, Latino, and Hispanic drivers are taking their places. There is also a good mix of Eastern Europeans and Punjabis.
Uniquely, the Eastern Europeans and Punjabis have already built their own networks. They have declined the opportunity to work for companies managed by a white male population they have trouble connecting with on a personal level. Connection and trust in the workplace are critical, and without it, a relationship-centered culture does not work.
My advice to carriers out there: Feverishly pursue diversification of your non-driving workforce. Of particular importance is your senior leadership. If you can diversify there, you are showing drivers that you are foundationally committed to creating an equitable culture that works for everyone.
I will admit this new culture can be scary to companies that are used to the way things have always been done. Making a change can make you seem more vulnerable, and that is difficult for organizations that have traditionally prided themselves on being “tough.”
My answer: let drivers know that it is challenging work to change. After all, the relationship-centered culture I am advocating is a two-way street.
“OK” you might be thinking, “I get the culture piece, but why urge carriers to start the diversification process?” From my perspective, if they do not, there will be a significant opening for a new player to come in and appeal to a more diverse driver workforce. Because driver supply and retention are so critical to carrier profitability, the next decade of the business will be dominated by whoever can do this right.
For example, as of this writing there is no single carrier that appeals to the soon-to-be-largest and fastest growing demographic in transportation — black men. If existing carriers cannot find a way to appeal to this demographic, someone else will.
I have watched retention trends across the industry for a long time. I work with some of the brightest scientific minds working in this field. I know that moving toward a relationship-focused work culture is the only way to gain a more stable transportation industry, one that benefits both companies and drivers in such a way as to build long-term commitment on both sides. We can do it, but we must do the hard work it takes.