CCJ Innovators: USA Truck gives drivers authority to plan, self-dispatch loads

CCJ 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 CCJ Editor Jason Cannon at jasoncannon@randallreilly.com or 800-633-5953.

In its first-quarter 2020 investor presentation, USAT Capacity Solutions (CCJ Top 250, No. 60) had a timeline with 2007 to 2016 labeled as “The Lost Decade.”

Improving the work experience of drivers has been a major focal point in 2020 for USA Truck. The focus led to an innovative program where company drivers can choose their own loads.Improving the work experience of drivers has been a major focal point in 2020 for USA Truck. The focus led to an innovative program where company drivers can choose their own loads.

The report notes that financial results for stockholders were unsatisfactory, but in January 2017, an era of “New Leadership” began that marked a turning point for the Van Buren, Arkansas-based company since it was founded in 1983 and had an initial public offering in 1992.

James Reed became president and chief executive, and in 2018 and 2019, the company was back in black.

Nick Wakefield, vice president of human resources, driver recruiting and retention, joined the company’s USA Truck division in 2018. He describes the culture going into 2020 as one where management empowered people to see problems and bring solutions.

Improving the work experience for drivers was a major focal point. From weekly driver pulse surveys, management found drivers requesting more control over their work-life and home time. USA Truck already got drivers home weekly through regional operations and its dense freight network that reaches from I-35 to the Eastern Seaboard.

Planning loads for the fleet’s 2,000 trucks was a fairly manual process, said Blair Ewell, who joined USA Truck in 2019 as senior vice president of operations. Earlier this year, Ewell and his operations team presented an idea to Reed to improve load planning and driver home time, but it carried risks.

They suggested that USA Truck should allow company drivers to self-dispatch. Reed took a short pause, then said “Let’s try it.”

Removing friction

Motor carriers have been in the crosshairs of plaintiff attorneys and government agencies for employee misclassification. A fine line separates the employer-contractor relationship, and it easily can get blurred in the planning of loads, schedules and routes.

Wakefield and Ewell understood the risks of the contractor model before they came to USA Truck. Both previously had worked for a carrier with West Coast operations that dealt with California’s strict labor laws.

In late 2018, USA Truck developed an internal load board for owner-operators to mitigate the potential risks of the employer-contractor model. The mobile load board app lets them plan their way into and out of freight markets to maximize revenue by selecting loads. Drivers can view origins, destinations, rates per mile, empty miles and other details.

The mobile app runs on personal devices or the company’s tablet, which is part of its electronic logging device and telematics platform, alongside other company and third-party apps.

Removing friction between drivers and managers is one of the goals for USA Truck’s Drive Your Plan program. A driver manager no longer has to communicate load plans and dispatch instructions.Removing friction between drivers and managers is one of the goals for USA Truck’s Drive Your Plan program. A driver manager no longer has to communicate load plans and dispatch instructions.

The load board quickly proved advantageous for load planning. Owner-operators “did so much better on their own” in terms of productivity than USA Truck could do, Ewell said.

The load board’s success opened the door to a similar platform for company drivers. Ewell and Wakefield wanted drivers to have the freedom and control they had been requesting, which would give the company a recruiting and retention advantage.

“A lot of companies are scared to do that,” Ewell said.

USA Truck expanded the custom load board app in July to launch its Drive Your Plan program for company drivers. The app allows drivers to see all available loads in a specific market, pre-plan themselves for the week and plan their home time. A Load Checker tool ensures that any loads that drivers select will fit within their hours of service limits.

When dispatched, drivers receive turn-by-turn navigation through a separate app in the tablet that also has planned fuel stops and real-time estimated time of arrivals (ETAs).

One major difference in the Drive Your Plan load board app is that company drivers do not see rates. USA Truck also controls how far in advance drivers can plan themselves. Also, “we don’t generally let them change their geography without a load” so as to prevent drivers from deadheading to a different area, Ewell said.

Removing friction between drivers and managers is one of the goals. A driver manager no longer has to communicate load plans and dispatch instructions. They only intervene if needed to help drivers execute on the loads they choose, Ewell said.

A phased approach

USA Truck is rolling out the program in a phased approach. It started by choosing the first driver manager who would have a dedicated “load board” fleet.

The results from the test fleet were positive, with service levels, production, driver satisfaction scores and retention that were “just amazing,” Ewell said. “It was a no-brainer at that point.”

The early experience showed drivers “have a lot more knowledge than our best planners,” he said, and loads not chosen through the load board USA Truck initiates traditional planning and driver management roles.

Drivers can volunteer and are selected to be in a Drive Your Plan fleet based on tenure and safety records. Once accepted, they are reassigned to a load board fleet manager. USA Truck currently has a waiting list, Ewell said.

“Everybody will get their chance,” he said. “We are being very metered to control the chaos.”

Operations and recruiting work closely together to ensure that what they are selling to recruits can be delivered on as promised. They have daily conversations to discuss what is working and what needs to change before expanding the program.

The Drive Your Plan load board app allows drivers to see all available loads in a specific market, pre-plan themselves for the week and plan their home time.The Drive Your Plan load board app allows drivers to see all available loads in a specific market, pre-plan themselves for the week and plan their home time.

New recruits need at least 12 months of experience and no more than five jobs in three years to qualify for the program. A new driver will spend two weeks assigned to an onboarding driver manager. During the two weeks they receive extra training on how to use the app and mobile platform.

USA Truck manages about half of its driving force from its corporate office in Van Buren and the remainder from four regional office locations.

Exceeding expectations

The minimum conditions for drivers to stay in the program are to maintain a five-week rolling average of 2,000 miles per week. Exceptions are given to drivers for vacation time and if a breakdown occurs.

So far, drivers have exceeded these standards. In fact, the majority of drivers are staying out on the road for longer than a week. Ewell credits this to giving drivers more control over their home time and earnings.

Compared to the fleet average, drivers in the program are 40% to 50% more productive. They also have the flexibility to adjust their schedules to work harder one week and spend more time at home the next.

“This is a real opportunity for a work-life balance,” he said.

USA Truck also has seen a significant drop in deadhead percentage for drivers in the program. Drivers have been more apt to choose the closest load even though the company pays for all miles, Ewell said.

For participating in the planning process, drivers in the program are hitting the higher end of the regional pay rate compared to USA Truck’s regional drivers, which is already in the top third of the market, according to pay data the company tracks from the National Transportation Institute.

USA Truck has productivity pay for drivers to earn up to an additional 6 cents per mile, for all miles in a week, for reaching mileage levels.

“Drivers have loved it,” said Wakefield of productivity pay. “The more they drive, the more they earn. They have real control over their paychecks.”

A better career path

Besides reaping rewards for USA Truck in recruiting, retention and productivity, Drive Your Plan gives the company a way to enhance drivers’ career paths.

“We have the ability for a driver to go from just getting their CDL to becoming an owner of their own trucking company, or anything in between, without having to leave the lanes and the customers they are used to servicing,” Wakefield said.

Compared to the fleet average, drivers in USA Truck’s new program are 40% to 50% more productive.Compared to the fleet average, drivers in USA Truck’s new program are 40% to 50% more productive.

The recruiting market in 2020 is one of the most difficult Wakefield has seen in the last decade, but “having great jobs makes it easier to have that conversation” with drivers and find the best fit for what they want, he said.

Drive Your Plan self-dispatch currently is available for company drivers in a 75-mile radius of the following cities: Dallas and Houston; Oklahoma City and Tulsa; West Memphis, Arkansas; Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri; Joliet, Illinois; Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Indiana; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; Detroit; and Pittsburgh and Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

“This is a nice change in the industry,” Wakefield said. “When you trust in drivers, they show you the professionals they are.”