2018 Innovator of the Year: Werner Enterprises’ apprenticeship programs attract military veterans, mitigate driver and technician shortages

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Updated Apr 23, 2018

CCJ Innovator of the Year: Werner Enterprises

By some estimates, the trucking industry currently has a shortage of 50,000 drivers. By 2026, the driver shortage could balloon to more than 176,000. Carriers of all sizes are struggling to attract, train and retain new hires just to keep up with the attrition rate.

According to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 9.27 million military veterans not of retirement age, including 1.62 million between the ages of 18 and 34 and 4.35 million between the ages of 35 and 54.

Starting in the 2000s, Werner Enterprises (CCJ Top 250, No. 11) was among the initial wave of large carriers in the trucking industry to actively recruit U.S. service members returning from active duty to fill unseated trucks.

But it was the company’s efforts to provide a seamless transition from military to civilian life – including the establishment of industry-first driver and diesel mechanic apprenticeship programs that allowed military veterans and their spouses to take full advantage of post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits – that earned the Omaha, Neb.-based truckload and logistics company Commercial Carrier Journal’s 2018 Innovator of the Year honors.

The right thing to do

Beyond the call of duty

Quinton W. travels all over the country hauling freight for Werner’s customers along with his dog, Kirra, who he received through the Wounded Warrior Project after retiring from the U.S. Army.Quinton W. travels all over the country hauling freight for Werner’s customers along with his dog, Kirra, who he received through the Wounded Warrior Project after retiring from the U.S. Army.

Five years into his active-duty service with the U.S. Army, Quinton W. was injured in the line of duty. In 2010, he medically retired from the military and began his transition back to civilian life.

His military career now over, Quinton entered the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Program that assists active-duty service members and veterans with career path counseling, job placement services, skills coaching and advice on maximizing their eligible VA benefits.

Quinton moved around frequently during his military training and was looking for a career that would allow him to continue to see new places.

“Initially I became a driver because it gave me the opportunity to travel … ,” he says. “I’m very transient in that aspect where I don’t like to stay in one place. It gave me the opportunity to grow and build. [The VR&E program] provided the education and tools to find my way into the industry.”

VR&E helped Quinton enroll in a truck driving school in Colorado, and his career as a truck driver had begun.

“Before I finished school, we were already doing the investigative stuff to find out what kind of companies were out there and what they were offering,” says Quinton. “By the end of my four-week training, I already had a job offer from Werner.”

Quinton started his career as a professional driver for Werner Enterprises in early 2017, taking advantage of the company’s industry-first professional truck driver apprenticeship program that allows him to receive his post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits during Werner’s on-the-job training over two years.

“I chose Werner for a couple different reasons, but it really came down to be the way they backed their veterans and the way they treat their employees,” says Quinton.

Almost a year after joining Werner, the company named Quinton to its Elite Veteran Driver Program, selecting him based on his on-time and safe driving record, professionalism and work ethic. Werner Enterprises President and CEO Derek Leathers handed Quinton the keys to Freedom VI, one of six military-themed trucks that make up Werner’s Operation Freedom Fleet used to show the company’s gratitude for U.S. military service members and veterans.

Today, Quinton travels all over the country hauling freight for Werner’s customers along with his dog, Kirra, who he received through the Wounded Warrior Project.

“We’ve been working together to ensure I never have any issues,” says Quinton about Kirra. “She helps me out in innumerous amounts of ways.”

Werner’s initial focus on recruiting military veterans that began in the mid-2000s was borne out of a sense of obligation to help returning veterans find work and assimilate back into civilian life.

“Returning home to meaningful and purposeful work is a big part of solving some of the issues you hear about veterans coming home and struggling to find their footing,” says Derek Leathers, Werner Enterprises president and chief executive officer. “When they are over there in the military, they are doing purposeful work that matters, and they have a sense of pride. Coming back and helping move America’s freight is purposeful work versus finding themselves in some job that they struggle to feel why it matters.”

Guided by that clear purpose, Werner has developed and honed its military veteran recruiting efforts in the last 15 years into a first-class employment program that has won the company numerous awards from veteran groups, media outlets, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

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“Words and slogans are easy,” says Leathers about companies and industries that pay lip service to the military, “but actions and culture are much harder. … For us, that meant drawing a line in the sand and saying we believe someday we’ll have one in five of our associates be former military, and we are essentially there today.”

To reach that goal, Werner began the arduous process of working with the U.S. Department of Labor and VA to dovetail its driver apprenticeship program with government efforts to help place veterans in the U.S. workforce.

In April 2006, Werner announced a DOL- and VA-backed Professional Truck Driver Apprenticeship Program with unique benefits for military veterans and veteran spouses. In addition to their normal pay, veterans could receive their post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits during their first year with the company.

“Initially, no other transportation company had an apprenticeship program that was approved by the DOL and VA,” says Jim Morbach, Werner Enterprises associate vice president of student and government recruiting. “That process was very lengthy, because you had to generate the entire training program, how to get paperwork to the DOL and back to Werner and then to the VA and make sure [drivers] would get paid in a timely manner.”

In 2015, Werner received approval to extend the apprenticeship program from 12 to 24 months, allowing veterans to receive more than $23,000 in tax-free benefits while learning to drive a truck.

Werner now has the largest driver apprenticeship program in the industry and currently has 4,600 nonmilitary and military drivers, including more than 500 military veterans who are receiving post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
Five years ago, Werner went back to work with the VA to establish a similar apprenticeship program to address the technician shortage.

“Hiring mechanics today is about as difficult as it is hiring drivers,” says Leathers. “The technician shortage is less-reported and less-discussed by the general population, but trades in general have suffered in this country over the last five to 10 years.”

In June 2015, Werner received approval for its diesel mechanic apprenticeship program that allows military veterans to receive more than $27,000 in post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits over a three-year period in addition to their normal pay.

Ultimately, Leathers believes Werner can raise the number of military veterans and veteran spouses to one out of every four associates. After making a pledge in 2012 to hire 1,000 veterans per year over five years and exceeding its goal, the company has upped its goal to hire 2,000 veterans and 250 veteran spouses in 2018.

“I get asked occasionally if I ever see a world where we would be a fully veteran organization,” says Leathers. “One of our goals is to reintroduce them into society. The idea of being 100 percent veteran would prevent that reintroduction. We want to be sufficiently veteran-focused and sufficiently veteran-represented so that there is a comfortable transition but yet still be fully representative of a cross-section of people from a whole variety of backgrounds.”

Mission accomplished

Most veterans arrive with positive character and work traits learned while serving in the military, and Werner realized early on how well those attributes translate from a career in the military to a career as a professional truck driver.

“Leadership, flexibility, working well under minimal supervision, communication and being able to work well with others are specific skill sets that accompany successful drivers,” says Morbach, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “Veterans begin learning those skills in basic training and fine-tune them throughout their military career.”

“This demographic in total has a better retention history, it has a better accident frequency, and it has a better service profile … ,” adds Leathers. “I want to be clear that it isn’t some charitable activity on our part. We’re proud of what they did to serve our country, but most importantly, we think they make great associates, both in the office and in the shop and over the road. They come in with a commitment level to mission that is second to none.”

In addition to its military benefits package, Werner launched Operation Freedom in 2013, a program that recognizes veterans and shows appreciation for those who served their country. The program includes a small fleet of military-themed tractors with special graphics wraps.

“Our fleet of Freedom Trucks are driven by military veterans who represent Werner and honor all veterans and spouses of veterans for taking an oath to defend our great country,” says Morbach.

Operation Freedom is led by a team of military veterans at Werner who serve as subject matter experts on GI Bill benefit packages and act as liaisons for the company’s veterans to assist them as they transition back into the civilian workforce.

Tapping into the source

Werner acquired the American Institute of Trucking and Roadmaster Drivers School to assist in the training and development of drivers for the company and the industry.Werner acquired the American Institute of Trucking and Roadmaster Drivers School to assist in the training and development of drivers for the company and the industry.

As a nationwide truckload carrier with more than 9,000 drivers and an entry-level hire rate of 57 percent, Werner Enterprises always relied heavily on outside commercial driver’s license schools to attract and train its supply of entry-level drivers.

But the growing driver shortage led the company to secure its own supply of drivers, and in 2013 and 2014 it acquired the American Institute of Trucking and Roadmaster Drivers School to assist in the training and development of drivers for the company. The acquisitions provided Werner with 13 school locations across the country.

Rather than use a carrier-student contract training model, Werner opted for a driver choice model and allows other carriers to visit and lets students choose their preferred carrier upon graduation.

“Not [every student] is going to be a fit for us,” says Jim Schelble, Werner Enterprises executive vice president and chief administrative officer. “We want to make sure we are bringing people into the industry and ensure cost-effective high-quality training, and we get them on with the appropriate carrier so they are not going to hop from job to job.”

Werner’s graduate hire rate from Roadmaster and AIT students has remained constant before and after the acquisitions at just under 40 percent.

Once drivers are onboarded, Werner goes to great lengths to ensure they receive consistent messaging. One way it achieves this is the Werner Road Team, a group of individuals representing all types of drivers across the company’s business that serve rotating two-year terms.

Now in its 18th year, the Werner Road Team serves as a sounding board for management feedback and liaisons between the office and the road.

“They’ll come in for a week of training and learn from every department head what is happening here so they can have some rationale when they talk with [other Werner drivers] on the road,” says Chris Polenz, Werner Enterprises vice president of recruiting.

Werner follows up regularly on conference calls with Werner Road Team members to get a better understanding of what problems its drivers are having on the road and what issues management needs to address.

“That’s just one way we stay in touch with 75 percent of who Werner is, and that’s truck drivers,” says Polenz. “The rest of us are just here to support the professional driver. Without them, we are not here, and I think people need to understand that.”

Going the final mile

Werner’s graduate hire rate from Roadmaster and AIT students has remained constant before and after the acquisitions at just under 40 percent.Werner’s graduate hire rate from Roadmaster and AIT students has remained constant before and after the acquisitions at just under 40 percent.

Werner Enterprises has exhibited a history of innovation and achieved a number of industry firsts as it has grown from a one-truck operation in 1956 to a 7,435-truck publicly traded corporation.

Werner was the first company to employ electronic logging, receiving approval from the Federal Highway Administration to make the switch in 1998 and completely eliminate paper log books.

In 2001, the company was the first to introduce a full-motion driving simulator, part of a multimillion-dollar joint venture with Lockheed Martin. Today, Werner has an array of modern simulators at training facilities across the country to use for both remedial and systemic training. It also has two dedicated tractor-trailers with mobile simulators that visit drivers for the company’s 4,000-truck dedicated fleet across the country.

“That technology continues to evolve,” says Schelble. “Now we have the ability to throw in all the sleet and ice conditions, summer driving and road construction simulations.”

Today, Werner is working with customers to enhance freight visibility and optimization from a network level, load level and SKU level, even helping customers build loads and select the appropriate transportation modes.

“We do site selection work with our customers to help them build new facilities, pick locations and reoptimize their store delivery patterns, all based on technology investments we’ve made,” says Leathers.

As Werner works toward deeper integration with its customers’ systems, it has more than doubled revenues for its Werner Logistics division in the last five years. In 2017, the business unit accounted for $417 million of Werner Enterprises’ $2.12 billion annual revenues.

“One of the things our customers expect of a company our size is to have a one-call portfolio ability to buy,” says Leathers. “They want to buy from us across the portfolio and solve their domestic and North American issues, and increasingly want our help on sourcing issues abroad.”

Just as it leverages its logistics division to get upstream of its traditional asset-based truckload operation, Werner announced last year it was entering the final-mile space with a downstream logistics solution. Werner Final Mile uses a nonasset model and proprietary e-commerce software platform to deliver large or heavy items to the home with a partner carrier network with 200 locations.

“We are in the early innings, but our customers increasingly expect us to solve problems across their supply chains … ,”says Leathers. “Logistics is a big part of what we do, but people still think of us as a trucking company, and we will always be proud of that being our roots.”

About the award

Commercial Carrier Journal’s editors recognize innovators throughout the year and select one for special recognition as the CCJ Innovator of the Year. Innovators considered for the current award were those recognized in the magazine in 2017.

Innovation in any aspect of the operation is eligible for recognition. To qualify, the carrier must operate at least 10 power units in Classes 3-8 and maintain a satisfactory safety rating, if rated. Selection of innovators for recognition is at the sole discretion of CCJ’s editorial staff.

This year’s award was announced and presented at the CCJ Innovators Summit, a networking event for current and prior-year CCJ Innovators held Feb. 7-9 in Key Largo, Fla. Representatives of the innovative trucking operations updated one another on their initiatives.

The CCJ Innovators program is sponsored by Cummins, Freightliner Trucks, Omnitracs and Shell Lubricants. For more information on the program and links to previously recognized CCJ Innovators or to fill out the online nomination form, go to www.ccjinnovators.com or contact Jeff Crissey, CCJ editor, at 205-248-1244.