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IMPERIAL OIL

Big Expectations

by Jim Park
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What am I looking for in a carrier? When was the last time you asked that question, and then gave it the consideration it deserved? It's one that a lot of drivers and owner-operators should be asking more often.

We're on the leading edge of what may be the first real human resources crisis ever to hit the trucking industry. Nobody is entirely sure if the so-called driver shortage is here yet, or still to come, but signs are pointing to a growing concern over finding people to drive truck. One of the principle difficulties in determining if we're there or not is the churning phenomenon - drivers leaving one carrier and hiring onto another. It skews the numbers pretty badly.

Will churning ever be eliminated? Probably not. But it can be minimized, and the negative effects and costs can be reduced to a manageable level.

Churning is more prevalent in the most recently hired 10-20% of most fleets' driver roster, and it's an expensive and time-consuming problem. Statistics suggest it's the newer 10% of drivers who are most prone to accidents and incidents. A year's service with the same carrier reduces that risk considerably.

What can drivers do about turnover? We're certainly not about to suggest that you tough it out and stay with a carrier you're not happy with. What we're suggesting is that drivers may need to do a lot more research before hiring on to a carrier in the first place. Making sure the job meets their needs and expectations lessens the potential for a quick departure.

Linda Gauthier, executive director of the Canadian Trucking Human Resources Council (CTHRC), has been watching these trends for some time. She says that when driver is asked by the carrier to leave within the first 90 days, it indicates that something went wrong in the screening process. If a driver is laid off within the first two years, it suggests the driver is not meeting the carriers' needs. But if the driver quits within that time, it suggests there's something missing in the carrier's capacity to deal with the driver's needs.

"The first 90 days of employment are crucial," she says. "Past that point, the first two years become crucial. Over 70% of drivers who separate from a carrier leave or are laid off within two years."

Research done for the driver shortage survey just released by CTHRC [see 'The Roundup', p. 9] examined the turnover issue and concluded that 70% of all separations are initiated by the driver. That suggests that, more often than not, it's the carrier failing to satisfy the driver. Perhaps that's because enough of the right questions weren't asked up front.

20 Questions
Drivers' expectations of the job range very widely, and if the recruiting and driver intake process aren't conducted effectively, a lot of their questions may go unanswered and even unasked. Les Ferris, manager of driver recruiting and development for Big Freight Systems in Steinbach, Man., thinks the industry's turnover problem could be reduced significantly if drivers asked more questions about the carrier's operation, and did a better job of defining their own expectations during the interview.

"There can be a lot of finger pointing during an exit interview," says Ferris. "It's not always clear who is right, but I'm fairly certain that if drivers were honest with themselves about what they want from the job, they'd make better decisions about the carriers they choose to work for."

Ferris says that geography is often an issue, with home time suffering because drivers don't live close to the carrier's service lanes. It's completely understandable that a driver gets angry when he can't get home, but if home is somewhere the carrier services only infrequently, there's going to be a problem.

Money is also a big issue with unhappy drivers, and to be brutally honest, sometimes a driver's financial needs are beyond what the carrier can reasonably provide. When recruiters promise all the miles a driver can handle, a red light ought to come on. There are limits imposed by hours of service, and more practical limits of what a driver can physically accomplish safely. A 10,000-12,000-mile month is reasonable, 14,000-15,000 is possible, but likely illegal, and anything beyond that is getting physically challenging.

So if a driver is promised unrealistic mileage, he or she should be asking how that might be possible. If they don't, they're being set up to fail, Ferris says.

On the financial front, drivers should be asking carriers what other drivers in the fleet are earning. From a recruiting point of view, the top earners are usually mentioned first, so ask what the middle earners are making. Chances are that's a more realistic projection of your own earning potential.

Schneider National Carriers in Aberfoyle, Ont. hands all prospective drivers a pay and benefit summary sheet during the initial stages of the recruiting process. This outlines exactly what they can expect to earn in the first six months, the first year, and each year after that up to 20 years. The sheet also lists the possible bonuses, and it shows average and maximum earnings. There's little doubt where you stand after reading it.

Sure, you can accuse a carrier of being dishonest about earning potential, but did you ask the right questions? If you own financial needs suggest that you need to bring home $50,000 per year, but the carrier says you'll realistically make only $45,000, why would you take the job?

Ferris says he does a pretty thorough job of trying to determine a new driver's financial needs because he can't afford to hire a driver that he can't keep happy.

"A financial-needs checkup before we hire saves a lot of hassle after the hire," he says. "I've run across a few drivers who don't do a good job of managing their money, or who have had some bad luck along the way, such as a divorce with an expensive settlement, and I've turned them away. They just wouldn't have made enough here."

Big Freight's pay scale provides a very reasonable income for a driver who is willing to do a reasonable amount of work, and Big Freight's best-paid drivers do rather well. But as they say, it's not what you make, it's what you keep.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Before you get to the preliminary interview, here's what you should be doing:

  • Find out all you can about the carrier by asking other drivers. Ask about lanes, pay scale and mileage calculators, additional pay, average miles, dispatcher personalities, etc. Observe, don't draw conclusions: talk to several drivers, not just one.

  • Make a list of all that you're looking for in a carrier, such as minimum income, the time you're prepared to spend away, lanes you're prepared to run, and what you're willing to tolerate in terms of waiting time, delays, layovers, and other known irritants from past experience.

  • Compile a list of all the carriers that seem to have what you're looking for and make the initial contact. Tell them you're just looking and that you'd like to find out more, preferably in a telephone interview, given the difficulty of scheduling appointments.

  • Compile a list of questions specific to those carriers.

  • Assemble a resumé with past employment history, contact names and numbers, etc. as well as driving and/or conviction records, etc., but leave out all the sensitive information such as driver's licence number, SIN, drug tests, and criminal background check. They can have that upon an offer of employment, but be honest about what they can expect to see. You'd have little right to be offended were the offer withdrawn because you submitted false information.

Here's what you should be doing when you get to the sit-down interview:

  • Arrange an appointment you can be sure you'll make. Dress appropriately and arrive on time. The carrier will be making decisions based on first impressions.

  • Lay your cards on the table, knowing at least the basics of what the carrier is all about. Explain what your needs are, and what you expect from the job. Then listen while the carrier makes its presentation. Respect is key here. If they respect you enough to let you tell your story, do the same for them.

  • Ask all the questions you have on your list, and discuss each of the points you identified as important considerations, even if they have already come up in the carrier's presentation.

  • Ask to see driver pay statements to verify earnings of high, low, and medium earning potential. Ask to see the carrier's policy and procedures manual. Read it and question everything that might be a potential deal breaker, such as a forced dispatch clause.

  • Ask for a tour of the shop to get a feel for how well they do maintenance, and ask to meet the dispatchers and operations people. They're the ones you'll deal with on a daily basis, not the recruiter.

  • Ask about benefits, social functions, and the company's commitment to the spouse at home, etc. Try to get a feel for how happy other people are in the organization, and how professional they are. Chances are, good people won't work for a crummy company.

  • Ask how the carrier deals with the difficult situations that are bound to arise, like unwanted delays, layovers, shortages on pay, etc. Better to see how they're handled up front than in the heat of the moment.

  • At the end of the interview, tell them you want some time to think about the job. If you have left yourself time before you need to jump from the previous job, you'll have the luxury of conducting several interviews before you decide where to go. Ultimately, advise the carrier of your decision, even if you don't take the job. That's just plain courteous.

Sometimes, Ferris says, it's a matter of personal problems or issues that they haven't worked out before they hire on.

"The long-haul life, 10-day duty cycles, the cost of life on the road, stuff going on at home, there are all kinds of things that we can't control," he points out. "We expect the new driver to be honest with us about what they want and expect from the job, because the cost to everyone when they quit is just too high."

And sooner or later, your employment record will catch up to you. In a small community like Steinbach, or the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Ontario, most of the carriers know each other, and the dispatchers and recruiting people talk. When a name comes up with a bad record, all the references in the world can't cover the tracks of a driver who's worked for 10 carriers in five years.

The more you know about the carrier, and the more the carrier knows about what you want and need, the better the chances of forging a long and happy relationship. But of course, there will be times when things come to a head. That's when the good relationship really pays off. If you need a change of scenery, some time off, or something else out of the ordinary, there's a better chance your needs will be met in a relationship that's working for both parties.

Interview the Interviewer
Why wait 'til you're so desperate in a job that you absolutely must be working again by this time tomorrow? That doesn't leave you much time to research a carrier. And it certainly doesn't leave much latitude in selecting the carrier that's right for you.

The job market has changed a lot over the past five years. Virtually every carrier in the country is hiring, or at least interviewing. So why should you limit your prospects to the first carrier that says yes? If you begin your job search in advance of your anticipated need, you'll have time to make the right decision. But of course, that 'right' decision demands an honest assessment of your needs, and a thorough investigation of what the carrier has to offer.

Andy Roberts, director of Mountain Transport Institute in Castlegar, B.C., say drivers should be presenting themselves to carriers with all their credentials, qualifications, and experience, then saying 'Here's what I can do for you, what are you going to do for me?'

"Drivers don't seem to realize that it's a driver's market right now, and it likely will be for some time to come," Roberts says. "They're not playing their cards right. They think the best chance they have for gain is by threatening to quit. In fact, the best chance they have is during the employment interview."

And who is going to say no to a good driver with a bit of experience? All you need to do is be honest in your needs assessment, reasonable in your expectations, and thorough in your investigation.

If you've got what a carrier is looking for, you're golden. You're a valuable prospect, Roberts says. Why blow the opportunity to land the right job by not being honest with yourself first in terms of what you need and want? Why blow a great opportunity by leaping into the first vacant seat?

In this day and age, good, qualified drivers have the upper hand in the employment picture, but as Roberts says, too few of them manage it well.

"It's not a time to be arrogant or ignorant," he says. "It's a time when the value of the real pros stands out. And it's a perfect opportunity to let your professionalism speak for you. You can have the job you want, if you know what you're looking for and know how to get it."