Battle for retaining drivers just added a new front: U.S. Xpress to pay for an online college education

  Photo: Shuttterstock

Photo: Shuttterstock

In the battle to retain and recruit truck drivers, U.S. Xpress has gone way out of the box.

The truckload carrier company is announcing today that it is launching a plan called Full Ride. Under it, U.S. Xpress will pay the full cost of tuition for any of its truck drivers seeking higher education, whether it's for a bachelor's degree track or a master's track. The benefit is available only for education through Ashford University, an online school of higher education.

The offer is available not only to drivers but to their families. At any given time, according to U.S. Xpress, a company driver can have two people receiving the Full Ride benefits. So if a truck driver had no interest in the program but had two children who wanted to use it, the two offspring could concurrently take advantage of it. If there's a third child in the family, when one of the first two completes the program, then that third child can enroll and get the benefit.

Eric Fuller, U.S. Xpress CEO, said the company had studied employee education benefit programs at places like Starbucks. The difference, he said, is that companies like that don't assume the employees taking the benefit are going to end up as Starbucks long-term employees. And the second big difference is that the benefit is not offered to family members, only to the employee.

"We've got serious problems," Fuller said in an interview with FreightWaves. "We need to bring new people in, especially younger people, and how do we do that? Maybe this is the direction we can go and bring people in for a period of time."

Fuller likened the initiative to the programs offered by the U.S. military, where some people enlist with the specific aim of getting their college paid for. It's also similar in that it's targeted at millennials, "and college education for a lot of people is difficult to afford," Fuller added. "This is an opportunity for us to help somebody afford college and start developing for people not in the industry to look at trucking as a viable option for a period of time."

Or as Fuller said in the company's prepared statement on Full Ride, it can help those students whose "goal is to get an education without racking up debt." The statement also noted that there is no requirement that an employee who received the benefit stay with the company for a minimum period after completing their education.

Experienced drivers can take advantage of the benefit immediately, according to U.S. Xpress. Student drivers can do so after they finish their training and are promoted to “first seat” driver.

He wouldn't be pinned down on whether he thinks it will be more of a tool for recruitment or retention. The "retention aspect" of the program "goes a long way, but it's hard to say it more one or the other," Fuller said. "I think the impact is in both areas."

As far as adding the children of the drivers, Fuller said: "We took it an extra step. I've not heard of anyone else doing this in any industry."

Fuller said there is no set benchmark for what constitutes success with the Full Ride program. But he thinks the program will pay for itself. According to Fuller, when a company like U.S. Xpress loses a truck driver--and it has about 7,500 of them--the "hard" costs of that turnover are about $5,000. But when lost revenue opportunities because of the empty seat are calculated in, that figure is probably closer to anywhere between $12,000-$15,000, Fuller said.

"If we can retain a driver because we have opportunities for their education or their children, that will more than pay for itself," he said. And as far as the student, as Fuller said in the company's prepared statement, it will help those whose “goal is to get an education without racking up debt.”

The program will pay the costs upfront, according to the prepared statement released today by U.S. Xpress. There will be no need for the driver to front the tuition costs and then await U.S. Xpress to reimburse them. This page on the Ashford website, if you do the math, indicates a direct price per credit of about $1,055. (There also is a “net tuition calculator” that projects out your costs versus the value of the degree or credits.)

Fuller said when U.S. Xpress began researching the program, they looked at many options with one key requirement: the school they chose needed to be 100% online, given the demands of being a truck driver. Additionally, Fuller said, Ashford's flexibility allows any course to be started on the first day of a week. It doesn't need to be commenced at the start of a specific semester. "That flexibility, with our population, stuck out to us," he said.

The retention efforts at U.S. Xpress, like everywhere else, are ongoing. As an example, Fuller said the company had just added full eligibility for health benefits on day 1 of a driver's employment. Previously, it was 90 days. Pay is always a factor, Fuller said, "but if you do the math, everyone's pay is all relatively in the same ballpark. The question is what can you do to stand out from the pack."

(A spokesman said U.S. Xpress already has tuition reimbursement programs for other employees. Full Ride is just for drivers).

Some benefits—like immediate health coverage--have long been taken for granted in other industries, according to Fuller. But now there may be opportunities in trucking--like the college program--"that will close the gap."