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Staying Power

by Jim Park

The world is your oyster. Not the gross little bi-valve mollusk that goes well with a frosty beer on a sultry summer evening. The expression is just a metaphor to suggest that anything's possible for those who look a little harder than most people do.

In that sense, oysters and trucking have something in common: namely, that sometimes you have to work your way through the mess to get to the pearl.

There are some genuinely great driving jobs to be had in this industry and some truly bad ones as well. That's one of the things that make the business rather interesting. And something that's often overlooked in the search for the perfect driving job is the notion that you might already have it if you only looked.

Today, more than ever, drivers and owner-operators alike have so many companies to choose from that the slightest hint of stormy weather can send a body scurrying for the want-ads. Let's face it, if you quit this morning, you could be out again in a different colored truck by afternoon. It's pretty easy to change jobs, while making the effort to resolve the problem can be rather stressful.

According to Paul Lajoie, the recruiter/trainer at Canadian American Transport (CAT) of Coteau du Lac, Que., it costs a carrier an awful lot to recruit, hire and train a driver. It's around $7000 in direct costs and another $20,000 indirectly to get that new hire up to 100% of his operational potential. For that kind of money, you have to believe that most carriers would be willing to at least listen to any concerns you might have. But there's an obligation on your part as well.

"The driver has to be willing to address the issues, then give the carrier time to respond," Lajoie says. "You can't always work things out overnight."

Job or Career?

In the past 10 years, the last five in particular, the shortage of skilled drivers has allowed people at the wheel the luxury of being able to pick and choose the 'right job' from a roster of hundreds of carriers. So with switching jobs being as easy as it is, what's the point in staying with a carrier and spending the extra effort to work out the problems?

There are the usual perks associated with seniority, like more vacation time, choice of runs, a newer truck, or preferred scheduling. Maybe it's more a matter of earning the trust of the boss so that she's not riding your butt as hard as she is the next driver.

There also are many less tangible advantages to staying and growing with a carrier. Being permitted to use the pressure wash or the shop for your personal vehicle; being given a comfortable golf shirt for a uniform rather than having to pay for the standard blue-on-blue work outfit. Being allowed to use the boss's fishing camp on the weekend, or being offered a genuine opportunity to become an owner-operator and having the company's encouragement and support in the endeavor.

These and a host of other benefits can come your way once you've demonstrated to the company that you're a career-oriented driver rather than a job hopper. In fact, many carriers today are shying away from drivers whose resume reads like the trucking industry yellow pages.

"A resume that shows a driver jumping from carrier to carrier suggests the driver will probably do it again," says Tracy Jobe, president of In Transit Personnel in Toronto. "It makes me a bit reluctant to invest the money in training him, because I fear he'll jump from my ship in a short time as well."

But Jobe is quick to point out that a driver who has moved around a bit may have very valid reasons for leaving. "It's more a matter of how long he stayed on board. A two-to-five-year interval on a job suggests the driver is more of a team player than a 3-to-6-month driver," she says.

But let's throw a little cold water on this discussion before it begins to sound like some kind of a fairy tale. Jobs are a dime a dozen, but your career is yours - and you only have one. Viewing your relationship with a carrier as a career can make a profound difference in the way you deal with the inevitable problems you'll encounter.

The term 'career' suggests some sort of long-term pursuit. A job is something you do to earn a living. And the difference begins the day you show up for the interview.

Power of Persuasion

What do you want from the carrier? What does the carrier want from you? Those are the starting points, and Jobe says that not enough drivers are taking ownership of their careers.

"In today's market, the driver has some bargaining power," Jobe said. "There's no point in settling for what the first carrier is offering. You can pick and choose your job, so use that advantage to choose the job that best fits into your career plans."

The top 5 reasons to stay:

  • Co-operative and friendly work environment
  • An established career path within the carrier
  • Mutual respect
  • Longevity bonuses and perks offered by the carrier
  • Driver has career objectives rather than immediate needs.

The top 5 reasons drivers leave:

  • Wasted time on the road
  • Disputes over mileage
  • Unfulfilled promises of home time
  • Carrier's unwillingness to resolve the issue
  • Driver's unwillingness to resolve the issue

Lajoie says that since CAT began conducting exit interviews, he's been able to turn around one driver in three who were headed out the door. That suggests that Lajoie was willing to listen and then respond to the problem. But more importantly, it suggests that the drivers felt Lajoie's efforts were sincere.

He knows that he won't be successful with every driver, and he knows there's no point in promising the moon and stars just to keep someone on the job. That just sets everybody up for a disappointment. Interestingly, Lajoie has observed that his more senior drivers spend less time complaining and more time earning.

That situation, according to Roy Craigen, general manager of the Economy Carriers Special Commodities Division in Edmonton, Alta., is mostly a matter of learning and adapting to the corporate culture of the carrier. He knows what he's talking about, because nobody ever leaves his outfit.

"The longer the driver stays with the company, the more he understands the culture and the better he fits in," Craigen suggests.

Jobe agrees. "Building the relationship takes work," she says. "Long-term employees don't happen overnight."

More problems are encountered in the first year or two than in the following 10, she adds, provided everybody keeps talking. And that's another one of the advantages in thinking of yourself as a lifer: the carrier is going to be reluctant to let a five-year guy walk out the door unchallenged.

Craigen poses a rather interesting question. "Does a carrier have a low turnover rate because it's a better carrier, or is a carrier a better carrier because it has a low turnover rate?" He suspects both scenarios are accurate. Both are really self-fulfilling prophecies.

Everyone knows it's great to work for a really dynamic company, and carriers with a really enthusiastic workforce can concentrate on getting the job done rather than wasting valuable resources putting out fires. When the driver makes it clear to the carrier that he's on board for the long haul, the carrier is more apt to respond to his requests for meaningful involvement in the company.

In short, longevity builds stronger relationships because of the investment both parties have made in the relationship. That process can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as well.

Now you're probably thinking that a golf shirt or an extra week of vacation time isn't much of a payoff for a guy who has performed well and remained loyal to his employer.

So how do these perks sound? Being encouraged to earn your high-school diploma, or earning a business degree through computer-based training paid for by your carrier; profit sharing; or an American Express card for you to take the company's customers -our customers, really - out to dinner after you've delivered their load.

Don't laugh. Some carriers are offering these perks and encouragements right now. It's just a matter of knowing what you want and earning the right to ask for it.

At ECL's Special Commodities Division, for instance, drivers play a very active role in making sure customers are happy. Every customer is flown into Edmonton once a year for a weekend of fun and frolic, and it's not Craigen or another manager who meets them. A driver will greet the guest at the airport and then escort them - and dine with them - all through their stay. On the other side of that coin, Craigen is quite willing to fly a driver home for an important weekend if his schedule has him stuck in some far-flung corner of the continent. It's a two-way commitment.

"Nobody is going to stay happy for long in a relationship or a company that's completely unresponsive to their needs," Craigen says. He's correct, of course, but it goes both ways.

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