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As the coronavirus pandemic took hold, it disrupted freight demand in many segments of the economy, forcing some carriers to furlough drivers while others were quick to hire those furloughed drivers as a way to swiftly onboard experienced commercial vehicle operators.
At the same time, COVID-19 changed hiring and employment practices at fleets and compelled carriers to rethink their recruiting and onboarding efforts.
Kendra Patton, director of recruiting at U.S. Xpress, said the fleet was able to hire and continues to hire drivers that have been furloughed, specifically within its over-the-road and dedicated divisions, to meet increased demand in the grocery, retail and consumer goods sectors.
“We felt this was a great opportunity to add experienced, top talent to our fleet,” Patton said.
Refrigerated carrier Grand Island Express didn’t have to furlough any drivers and was able to continue hiring during the pandemic, said Deen Albert, vice president of operations at the Grand Island, Neb.-based fleet.
“There was a smaller pool of companies actually continuing to hire, and, yes, with the furloughs that took place, there was a slightly larger pool of applicants looking for their next opportunity,” he said.
The current situation is similar to the 2008-09 recession, said Jeremy Reymer, CEO of DriverReach, a driver recruiting company based in Indianapolis.
“In many cases, there were a lot of really good drivers available as a result of that. Through no fault of their own, they were out of work,” he said, adding that it was the same earlier this year.
That afforded opportunities to companies that wanted to hire drivers due to new work or simply were looking to hire the best and safest drivers, Reymer said.
There was a window of a few weeks where talent was available, said Jeff Jackson, senior vice president of operations for dedicated contract carriage at Penske Logistics.
Penske was able to capitalize on some of it, even though it had to lay off drivers in some areas or move drivers to sectors that were surging. He added that demand picked up a lot faster than the company had anticipated.
“Where we felt we had a surplus of drivers, it flipped to having to hire a lot of drivers again over the course of a couple of weeks,” he said.
Ryder Supply Chain Solutions also had to furlough some drivers due to customers that either dialed back operations or had significant volume drops, said Steve Martin, senior vice president of dedicated transportation solutions for Ryder System Inc.
“In some areas, we did not have to furlough drivers but could move them into other sectors that were experiencing increases,” he said, adding that business is pretty much back to normal. “Businesses have come back online, so we have brought back almost all of the drivers we had on furlough.”
Ryder Supply Chain Solutions is based in Miami and ranks No. 10 on the TT100 list of for-hire carriers.
Tim Chrulski, operations director for Garner Trucking, based in Findlay, Ohio, said the carrier didn’t have to furlough any drivers. Still, the company did relax its recruiting efforts.
“From April through mid-May, we just wanted to make sure we kept everyone whole and busy and maintain our current employment,” he said. “We shut down the training program for those that had already started and completed it back when we started things back up in mid-May.”
Since then, Garner Trucking has experienced an uptick in recruiting and in the quality of the candidates, Chrulski said.
“The training program right now is almost full,” he said.
Even with available drivers, companies are being very thoughtful about who they bring into the mix, said Max Farrell, CEO of WorkHound, which offers a platform for drivers to share anonymous feedback.
“During this time, it isn’t just who can fill the truck,” he said. “It is who is the right culture fit.”
Many fleets have experienced improved driver retention throughout the pandemic.
Dave Osiecki, CEO of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, said that is a natural outcome when the job market is uncertain.
The U.S. unemployment rate surged to 14.7% in April, but has since eased somewhat to 11.1% by June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The broad job market is a little scary right now,” Osiecki said. “If you have a good driving job right now, you’re pretty happy, and most drivers are staying put.”
Farrell said turnover rates are lower than they have been historically.
“The grass may not be greener on the other side,” he said, adding that while drivers may be prospecting and considering another carrier, they aren’t necessarily taking the leap.
Penske Logistics’ turnover rate has dropped.
“In 2019, our driver turnover was 29%. This year we’re trending at 23% through May,” Jackson said.
Driver retention also improved for U.S. Xpress.
“Especially during the earlier days of COVID-19, uncertainty was greater, and more drivers decided to stay put in their current positions,” Patton said.
Ryder’s procurement organization mobilized early to find personal protective equipment and got creative when supplies were short. (Ryder)
Farrell said many companies are over-communicating with drivers to increase their comfort level during the pandemic.
Penske Logistics initiated a driver communication campaign, sending various communications and creating a COVID hotline and a website with frequently asked questions.
“Drivers were not only concerned with COVID, but also with personal schedules that were in flux,” Jackson said, adding that drivers have appreciated the fleet’s enhanced sanitation with trucks and facilities. “From a [personal protective equipment] standpoint, we were ahead of pretty much every mandate with securing PPE. We also implemented temperature checks prior to the mandate. The drivers felt really good that we were putting this energy into it.”
Martin said Ryder’s procurement organization mobilized early to find PPE and cleaning suppliers and got creative when supplies were short. When the company couldn’t find hand sanitizer in small individual bottles, it purchased 55-gallon drums and broke it down into smaller containers.
“It has since gotten easier, but we are still actively looking for and maintaining those supply lines on PPE,” he said.
Patton said U.S. Xpress, which is based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and ranks No. 24 on the TT100, is listening to the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and communicating regularly with existing and incoming drivers to ensure everyone feels informed and safe.
“We are taking extreme measures to ensure our terminals and office space are regularly disinfected,” Patton said. “We’re also monitoring class sizes and socially distancing our drivers in orientation.”
Ryder has emphasized driver communication, sharing updates and informing drivers of the safety equipment and protocols the fleet has available to protect drivers. The fleet leveraged its driver app to survey drivers on the supplies they needed and the level of communication they were getting.
“We were able to quickly identify and triage where we might have gaps in the process,” Martin said.
Driver Onboarding and Safety
Scopelitis’ Osiecki said one of the most significant benefits of hiring experienced drivers is safety.
“Driving experience is positively correlated with safety as confirmed in study after study, including a 2017 FMCSA study that found the risk of being assigned the critical reason in a crash was 17% higher for drivers with less than five years of experience,” he said.
What’s more, hiring experienced drivers can help them get behind the wheel faster.
“Entry-level drivers, those with less than one year experience operating a [commercial motor vehicle] requiring a CDL, are subject to additional training requirements, and carriers often take special care to ensure they are as safe as possible,” Osiecki said. “This training and onboarding process adds time for new or less experienced drivers.”
Patton of U.S. Xpress said experienced drivers already understand safety precautions and have more on-the-road experience in various weather conditions, so they onboard faster and more quickly acclimate to operations right after orientation.
Fleets can gain greater insights into those with experience, Grand Island Express’ Albert said.
Grand Island Express didn’t have to furlough any drivers and was able to continue hiring during the pandemic. (Grand Island Express)
“From a safety standpoint, we have some idea of the type of driver that they are. From an efficiency standpoint, we know that they’ve been exposed to some of the technology used in the industry today. From a longevity standpoint, we know that experienced drivers understand the lifestyle of an OTR driver,” he said.
However, fleets said they have had to change their hiring processes to comply with social distancing guidelines.
Garner Trucking has modified its interview process. The first interview is no longer in person, and the second interview is conducted via video chat, Chrulski said.
The company also changed its orientation process. In addition to frequently cleaning all surface areas, the carrier limits how many people meet in a group and holds orientations in larger spaces so attendees can spread out. It also has utilized a conference line connected to a computer screen so each department can show its orientation remotely.
Penske has kept a core group of essential employees in the office, but other staff have worked from home.
“That impacted the support group we had to onboard drivers. It is getting better, but it did slow us down,” Jackson said, adding that Penske is conducting its Smith System driver training virtually.
Albert said it has been harder to give new hires a glimpse of the company’s culture at Grand Island Express.
“With the vast majority of our office staff working from home, we didn’t have the face-to-face interaction that has become so important with our company,” he said. “We were able to do socially distanced luncheons with our owner and me so that our new hires got a sense of our culture.”
U.S. Express is also allowing the option of virtual orientation.
“Internally, we adjusted very quickly, transitioning to virtual onboarding and orientation once the pandemic hit to limit exposure risk,” Patton said.
Martin said Ryder usually conducts a manager/driver ride-along to validate skills, but now they are not getting in the cab with the driver.
“We are doing drive-behinds and completing checks that way and using the onboard Lytx system to monitor what is going on in the cab,” he said.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has caused delays in drivers obtaining their CDLs due to DMV closings and driver testing sites being temporarily closed.
“We don’t have any specific data to definitely say how many fewer drivers are obtaining their CDLs during the pandemic, but, judging from the number of waivers and exemptions FMCSA has issued that provide licensing-related flexibility or relief from some rules, we believe that thousands of drivers are struggling to become, and remain, properly licensed,” Osiecki said.
Driver Efficiency and Demand
While COVID has created challenges, Chrulski said the pandemic has made picking up and delivering freight easier because there is less contact.
“Drivers are picking things up, and the paperwork is already in the back of the trailer, and they’re not waiting in line,” he said. “As a result of this, we figured out a way to keep the driver as safe as we possibly can and, at the same time, make their life more efficient.”
U.S. Xpress has removed more than 6 million touchpoints and improved on-time performance by 10%, Patton said.
Penske collaborated with customers and modified operating procedures to limit touchpoints.
“We verbally get the name and write it in instead of signatures,” Jackson said.
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Ryder accelerated a paperless initiative it had underway to remove as much of its trip management papers and driver settlements as possible.
While hiring may have gotten easier in some areas, Martin said the fundamentals surrounding the driver shortage haven’t changed and drivers will remain in demand, particularly in some regions.
“It is challenging to recruit in the Northeast and California,” he said. “Those remain the longer lead time, time to fill areas that we have.”
Overall, the freight market appears to be rebounding, Penske’s Jackson said.
“Spot rates are on the rise, so we think there will be high driver demand,” he said. “With COVID, who knows what is going to be around the corner.”
Osiecki said as a general rule, when freight is strong, carriers are always looking for good drivers.
“If you talk to any good fleet safety director, they’ll tell you it’s not the quantity of available drivers that makes hiring difficult, it’s the quality,” Osiecki said.
Despite all the challenges, the pandemic might actually help attract drivers to the industry.
“The drivers were really hailed as heroes throughout this in a variety of mediums. I think the professional driver is going to be looked upon more favorably going forward,” Jackson said. “They’re truly professionals. It is probably something from a recruiting standpoint we can leverage.”
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