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Driver shortage: Hire qualified drivers faster and without settling

Competition for truck drivers has never been fiercer, but carriers have options that can streamline the process and bring in more candidates

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

In what has become a near annual occurrence, the American Transportation Research Institute said the driver shortage is among the top industry concerns. In the latest iteration of its research, released in October 2021, the driver shortage was the top concern, followed by driver retention and driver compensation.

“When we talk to our providers and ask them if they are having a driver shortage, they say, ‘We’ve always had a driver shortage, it’s now the consumer [knows about it],’” said Daniella Perlmutter, senior vice president of marketing for delivery technology company Bringg.

Telling carriers there aren’t enough drivers is like telling them the rain is wet. The reasons are extensive, from low pay to long hours, from time away from home and regulations that restrict interstate driving to those over 21 years of age.

But what can be done to fix it?

There are efforts to recruit new drivers to the industry, from teens to seniors, all in an attempt to reduce a shortage that is estimated at 80,000 currently and could be as much as 160,000 by 2028, according to the American Trucking Associations. The average age of drivers, according to a Zippia analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, is 48.

Recruiting drivers is only half of the battle. Applications, drug and alcohol compliance paperwork, and testing documentation are just a few of the processes a carrier’s human resources department must undertake. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has a number of regulations that must be followed in order to onboard a driver, adding to the complexity.

Assuming a carrier, or its recruitment agency, is able to find a driving candidate, the onboarding process must kick into high gear. With high levels of competition, the carrier that has a lengthy and complicated process will lose out on its preferred candidates.

For carriers that can quickly and easily onboard drivers, there are many benefits they can reap, including higher acceptance rates. A shorter time frame from interview to offer reduces the chance that candidate will accept a job with another carrier.

According to J. J. Keller & Associates’ Tom Bray, senior industry business advisor, speeding up this process also reduces stress for those candidates looking for work and helps differentiate the carrier from competitors by indicating it is decisive in decision-making, which can also improve the reputation of the company. For understaffed departments, a rapid hiring process that fills open positions quickly can boost morale.

With that said, moving quickly requires having the right knowledge and support to ensure a smooth yet comprehensive process. 

Finding qualified drivers

There are two types of drivers carriers hire — experienced and inexperienced. There are benefits to both, but some fleets find inexperienced drivers offer some advantages. These include the ability to mold the driver as the fleet sees fit. Newer drivers also tend to have fewer bad driving or work habits.

Newer drivers are also less likely to bring negative opinions about the industry or job with them and in many cases enter the workforce enthused about their new opportunity. Bringing these new drivers into a robust and engaging driver training program, and into a fleet that shows the employee they are part of the solution rather than a number, also builds loyalty and improves retention.

Carriers that choose to hire a driver fresh out of school may consider building an apprenticeship program to reinforce safe operating practices and employment expectations. Many large trucking companies run their own driver training schools and training programs, but smaller and midsized fleets can offer schooling benefits as well. These programs could take the form of helping cover some or all of the costs for the student to enroll in a qualified commercial driving or training school. Upon graduation, the new driver can be paired with an experienced driver to continue the education process through real-world experiences. The fleet may also assist the potential driver in preparing for the commercial driver’s license (CDL) exam.

“Rounding out a new driver’s education with on-the-road instruction from a veteran driver helps close the skills gap between an inexperienced driver and a polished entry-level driver,” Bray said. “The door opens to an entirely new pool of potential drivers with a system in place to create well-trained, loyal drivers.” 

Mentorships can also improve both safety and retention for these newly hired drivers.

The hiring process

As carriers search for drivers, some may be unwittingly removing potential quality drivers at the very beginning of the application process. According to Bray, some companies reject applicants automatically if the application is not complete or contains errors.

“With the shortage of drivers, however, you never want to miss the opportunity to hire a good driver. Consider discussing the incomplete parts with the driver,” he said, adding that common reasons for incomplete applications are that the driver didn’t fully understand the instructions on completing the application or they simply missed a key question. Working with the candidate on discrepancies can help root out the real reason for the incomplete application.

After the initial application is complete, there are several additional steps in the process, all of which must be documented and included in the driver qualification file. If the candidate is expected to drive a CDL-required vehicle, the carrier should ensure the candidate has a valid CDL or assist him or her in acquiring one. But there are other requirements that must be obtained, including:

  • A copy of the signed receipt for the company’s drug and alcohol policy (§382.601).
  • Verified negative results from a preemployment drug test (§382.301).
  • The results of a full query from the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse indicating the driver is not disqualified (§382.701).
  • An entry-level driver training certificate if the driver has less than one year of verifiable experience driving CDL-required vehicles when hired (§380.503).
  • Candidates also need proof of a medical card for a non-CDL position or a motor vehicle report showing the driver’s medical information for a CDL position.
  • Proof the DOT medical exam was performed by a medical examiner on the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners.
  • A road test and road test certificate (see §391.31) or the equivalent as allowed under §391.33 (a road test certificate from a previous employer issued in the last three years or a CDL). 

Accelerating the hiring process

Once a potential candidate is identified, there are several steps the carrier or its recruitment/compliance firm can take to help speed up the onboarding process. This includes use of screening applications that are designed to identify potential risks; verification of the driver’s background, training and experience; verification of the driver’s skills and abilities; and qualifying the driver according to all fleet, state and federal regulations.

Bray advises conducting the required Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse inquiry early in the process before time and expense are invested in a driver who may be in a prohibited status and therefore not hirable.

All of these processes must be documented and records retained.

In addition, while many drivers may have previous experience or have just taken a road test to obtain their CDLs, Bray recommends carriers conduct their own road test, including pre- and post-trip inspections, with the applicant. Use a standard route and standard scoring system to ensure a fair test that properly evaluates applicants.

It is important to note that if a road test is conducted, the candidate’s Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse query must be complete prior to the test. 

Management’s role

One of the most overlooked parts of driver hiring is management’s role. Carriers often blame the driver shortage on a lack of qualified candidates, but when asked for feedback, drivers more often will cite the lack of good companies to work for as a reason for not applying. Drivers leave carriers for many reasons — lack of good loads, slow or low pay, or extended layovers, for example — but the common theme is usually that the driver did not feel respected. As drivers talk to each other, carrier reputations are molded.

Improved management training can aid in the driver retention process. Bray said frontline workers like supervisors and dispatchers should be regularly trained on interacting with drivers. Training on proper communication with drivers leads to a more engaged workforce, which will result in better cooperation and reliability among the entire workforce.

Also, employees regardless of position should be encouraged to help solve business problems such as driver turnover. Tap into your driver population for referral candidates and make sure you are listening when they tell you what they are struggling with on the job. Simply listening and/or being willing to make changes could be the difference between retaining a driver and struggling to find a replacement driver.

A shortage of drivers continues to plague the industry, but there are candidates out there. Carriers that streamline the hiring process, understand and improve their communication processes, and do so in a productive and compliant way, will have an advantage in the recruiting battles and also likely see an increase in driver retention.

Click for more articles by Brian Straight.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected]