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The molding of the professional truck driver

Training is the linchpin to ensure truckers are safe and positive examples of the companies they represent

With millions of truck drivers on the roads every day, it is up to carriers to ensure they uphold the values and safety-first focus of the professional trucker. And it all starts with training. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Author Mokokoma Mokhonoana is known for his sometimes funny, sometimes profound expressions. One of them is that “no expert was born an expert.”

That saying could not be any truer as it relates to the professional truck driver. The commercial vehicle operators that transport 80% of our goods across the nation are, by and large, professional and safety-conscious individuals.

But they are not all born that way. It takes hard work and the right mentorship.

Driver trainers play an underrated role in the safety of the nation’s trucking fleet. They set standards, they impart wisdom and they are responsible for ensuring the next generation of professional drivers is just as safe and dedicated as the generation that came before.

“I had a tough trainer at Hill Bros. where he was persistent on doing things his way. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or bad thing at first,” driver Nick Hill related to FreightWaves. “It’s a great thing I listened to him. He would pay attention to every detail and all that made me a better driver. Little tips on turning the wheel while backing and keeping a close eye on those trailer tires — extremely thorough. [You] have to be open-minded and ready to learn. Attitude is a big part of truck driver training.”

Driver trainers, while a large part, are still only part of the effort in developing the professional driver. Trainers must adhere to fleet standards for professionalism as well as following prescribed training programs. 

Career-minded professionals

Drivers today are looking for careers and that is reflected in the professionalism that most exude. That professionalism begins with the fleet itself — and how it chooses to display its own level of professionalism and impart the lessons necessary to equip the driver with the knowledge and support to embark on a safe and productive career.

And those lessons don’t end at the conclusion of training, but rather should be part of a continuing and evolving training program that covers the entirety of the driver’s career arc. According to J. J. Keller & Associates, the training program should cover topics that are meaningful to both the driver and the carrier, including professionalism, safety, defensive driving and regulatory requirements.

Defining professionalism

Merriam-Webster defines professionalism as having “the skill, good judgment and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.”

In trucking, that means the driver is expected to maintain the image the company wishes to project. In short, the driver is the face of the company. Often, truck drivers are the only company representatives a customer sees in person. The driver must uphold a standard of conduct, attitude, appearance and attention to customer service that holds both the driver and the carrier in the best light. Some companies may request drivers wear company apparel or in lieu of that issue a basic dress code.

But professionalism goes beyond that. Here are J. J. Keller’s tips on displaying the proper professionalism:

  • Be on time. If you are going to be late for a delivery, safely call the customer and make them aware of the situation.
  • Follow the customer’s rules/policies for making deliveries, handling cargo and documentation.
  • Be polite, use good manners.
  • Never take out frustrations on the customer.
  • Never argue with the customer.
  • Wear clean clothes and maintain a neat appearance.
  • Know how to handle freight issues and/or problems.
  • Be knowledgeable about company services and/or products.

Professionalism on the road

While it is true that drivers spend days, weeks and even months at a time on the road, they are never “not on the clock,” so to speak. Drivers and their vehicles are rolling billboards for their companies and that requires an additional level of attention to ensure that billboard displays the carrier’s preferred image to the customer.

A dirty or obviously damaged vehicle sends a message to the customer and the general public — a message that this carrier and/or driver doesn’t care about its image, and as a result, they may not care about you, the customer. Drivers should be encouraged to maintain a clean vehicle. Vehicle condition, both cleanliness and maintenance, should be part of all vehicle inspections, J. J. Keller advises. This will ensure a professional image is always being displayed to the public.

Driver safety is also an important part of professionalism. According to the American Trucking Associations, more than 70% of commercial vehicle-involved crashes are the fault of a four-wheeler, yet the industry continues to suffer from negative stereotypes. Why? It has to do with behaviors the public sees on a daily basis: speeding, ignoring general traffic laws, following too closely, changing lanes when it is not safe to do so, or not signaling when turning, to name a few.

According to J. J. Keller, the professional driver follows traffic laws, behaves in an appropriate manner and understands the size of the vehicle and the general intimidation factor that comes with driving an 80,000-pound vehicle. In short, the compliance specialists advise drivers to be aware of other drivers, vehicles and the general flow of traffic and respond accordingly — in a safe and responsible manner.

Training to be a professional

Rick Turner, a professional truck driver and a moderator of the popular Rates & Lanes Facebook group, told FreightWaves that it wasn’t uncommon years ago for trainers to treat drivers as something less than the professionals they are.

“Most, or I should say more than just a few trainers in those days, felt the trainee was their personal indentured servant,” Turner said. “Trainers threatened and sometimes did take off and leave their trainee at the truck stop.”

Fortunately, times have changed, but the trainer still holds an outsized influence over their trainees’ early career success. Trainers are the ones that are setting an example for the driver to follow. Carriers need to ensure the trainers they employ will uphold the same values and adherence to professionalism they will expect from the driver being trained.

Equally important, though, is the concept of continual training. Like any other profession, skills can deteriorate without regular practice, tasks can be forgotten or the driver can “do it in their sleep,” which may lead to a lack of attention to the task at hand and increase risk.

Continuing education

J. J. Keller noted that continued instruction throughout a driver’s career will reinforce the professionalism required to perform the job safely.

New driver training should be provided to rookie drivers as well as those new to the company so specific company policies can be addressed. The veteran driver may also come with a few bad habits or just need reinforcement on defensive driving skills. J. J. Keller said this also ensures there is no miscommunication between carrier and driver on compliance requirements and expectations or what the company expects from a professional driver.

For drivers that have been with the company for at least one year, training should also be conducted. These drivers may simply need a review of regulatory requirements (including updates on changes that may have occurred) and defensive driving techniques. It is also a good time to reinforce good driving habits and review company expectations for professionalism when dealing with the public.

Drivers that require coaching and/or corrective action training, J. J. Keller advised holding brief coaching sessions in addition to regularly scheduled training. This instruction should be a one-on-one session and be focused on a specific problem or issue. Training should occur as soon as possible following the incident (accident, violation or complaint) that triggered the need for additional training.

To achieve the highest level of impact from a training program, J. J. Keller said the carrier should have a monitoring program in effect to measure the effectiveness of the instruction. Coaching and corrective action sessions should also be tied to the company’s disciplinary policy, which needs to be in line with other company policies, state labor laws and any contracts or agreements (such as union contracts) with employees that may apply.

Driver training programs involve a myriad of steps, but are critical components to molding the professional driver. Third-party providers like J. J. Keller & Associates help manage this process, ensuring policies are in place, procedures followed, and both trainers and trainees receive the education they need to excel at their jobs.

Professional truck drivers are not born, but rather they are trained. From the moment a driver walks through the front door of the building, a carrier’s focus needs to be on ensuring that driver understands the rules of the road, the company’s policies and the impact he or she will play in the success of the company.

As the visible face of the company, each driver holds the keys to continued business with each and every client they interact with. Carriers must ensure that the driver is the face they want representing their company.

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]