Next gen drivers

In with the new: Trucking Adapts to Next Generation

If you’re an owner-operator, or even a small fleet owner who’s fully seated with reliable, long-time drivers, you might not pay a lot of attention to the driver recruiting and retention issues that plague larger fleets. You might even consider their problems a competitive advantage for your operation. And you’d be right—for now.

But sooner or later, you’re not going to feel like getting behind the wheel every day. You’ve got good equipment and customers, and you’re still going to need an income, so the obvious next step is to hire someone to do the driving for you.

And suddenly you’ve got the hiring problem too (at least until the robots take over): The real threat to the future of trucking is the aging driver population—and the inability, so far, to get younger drivers behind the wheel.

The American Transportation Research Institute’s (ATRI) analysis of 20 years of data confirms that a demographic shift is underway: The share of younger employees in the trucking workforce is now decreasing, with the industry more reliant than ever upon a specific generation—the core of which is within the 45- to 54-year-old age group.

Indeed, more than 29% of trucking employees in 2013 fell into that core age group, which is a higher figure than other employer categories used in the research, including construction, professional/business services, and all industry. Likewise, a lower percentage (15.6%) of 25- to 34-year-olds were employed within trucking compared with the other categories.

And even though the research illustrated precisely this shift in the age of the driver workforce, not much has changed in the two years since it was published, ATRI President and COO Rebecca Brewster tells American Trucker.

Some of this inability to seat younger drivers is systemic, such as federal regulations that don’t permit anyone under age 21 to drive in interstate commerce, while some insurance requirements prohibit drivers younger than 25 years of age, she notes. Regardless, “if we don’t rethink and restructure our workplace, we are not going to be able to fill seats in the future,” Brewster says.

Step one is to make sure good, experienced drivers don’t leave. Second, obviously, is to make the job of truck driver appeal to younger people. But if managing both ends of the career arc—with sometimes contradictory expectations and needs—was easy, trucking wouldn’t have this shortage.

Brewster points to the industry’s adoption of technology as a key: new operational tools with which the younger generation, or millennials, will be comfortable—in fact, they’ll expect it. Brewster also points to the obvious need to increase diversity, particularly with regard to women.

“Those of us in the industry need to look for opportunities to mentor folks who don’t necessarily look just like us,” she says. And while she credits the industry with making progress in the last 25 years, trucking still lags when it comes to opportunities for those outside of the traditional labor pool.

“The industry needs to be proactive—and we need to do this more rapidly because of our workforce issues,” Brewster says. “We are really going to have to adapt and change quickly to meet the needs of the older individuals who have been with us for a long time and who have shown loyalty as well as those who are just entering this industry and considering it as a career path.”

Misunderstood millennials

But enough discussion of why trucking desperately needs a new generation of drivers—and how tough it can be to attract young people. It can be done, as Marilyn Surber, Melton Truck Line’s employee services manager, explains.

As for doing the job, younger drivers—contrary to common assumptions—are willing to work hard, but they need to be motivated in different ways. Similarly, millennials have different styles of learning and communicating that need to be recognized.

“They don’t want to do something just because the dispatcher told them to do it. They want to understand the why and be part of something bigger,” she says.

Surber emphasizes the importance of having an online application that is optimized for mobile devices. “A millennial is not going to spend 20 minutes trying to find you, and they’re not going to spend another 20 minutes filling out your online application,” she explains. “It needs to be responsive and intuitive. This generation has grown up using the Internet. They’re very comfortable with technology, and that’s how they’re applying for jobs—with smartphones and tablets.”

Likewise, a social media presence is essential—and that includes carefully maintaining the fleet’s image on numerous platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Melton has a full-time coordinator responsible for controlling the company’s message.

“[Applicants] can see what Melton’s culture is about, and what other drivers have to say,” she says. “If you are trying to recruit millennials and they can’t find you, you’re at a disadvantage.”

Social media, it turns out, is also a great way for a company to communicate with its drivers. Facebook events or YouTube messages from the company president can be much more effective than blast messaging over a telematics device. And the communication goes both ways.

“Social media has opened up another outlet for us to be proactive around the clock,” Surber says. “We find out about things that we can get in front of—things we would’ve never known without that avenue.”

Surber, herself a millennial, points out that a lot of Melton’s older drivers are connecting to the company through social media as well. And younger drivers are indeed interested in having the latest technology. Along with fleet management systems and telematics, mobile devices are computers in the cab, and millennials rely on apps for work and recreation.

"For this generation, this is a cool job. You are utilizing a lot of technology, and you’re making a huge difference,” Surber says. “It’s about training the people who are going to be managing drivers: How can I get the best out of them if they’re 25? Or even 55? A  young driver manager needs to understand how to get the best out of an older driver too.”

Indeed, good management is about individuals, not clever pop-sociology nicknames for entire generations.

THE 'ON-DEMAND' GENERATION

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Even if they’re currently underrepresented in the trucking workforce, the number of millennials will grow significantly, and with that will come “a significant shift in values,” explains Max Farrell, co-founder of WorkHound, a mobile-based driver feedback and retention tool for fleets.

An entrepreneur with a background in human resources, Farrell built WorkHound around connectivity because, as a millennial himself, he knows that simply asking “how’s your day been?” will result in a couple of clicks that connect the driver with the company and, at the same time, provide real-time, actionable data about what works and what doesn’t for the fleet’s drivers.

“Our teenage and early-adult years have been formed based on connectivity and social networks, and needing this feedback. If I want to get in touch with somebody, I have eight different ways to do it,” Farrell says. “The communications mechanisms in trucking are tough. When there are wait times to get to a dispatcher with an issue, it’s much, much more annoying for millennials. We are the on-demand generation. Everything comes to the millennials. It’s all about how to make things easier, and communication is a key part of that.”

Trucking’s immediate problem, he suggests, is that it’s a “second choice” because few companies hire drivers in their early 20s. And those that do are typically mega-carriers where new employees are treated like a number—and millennials don’t like that at all.

Instead, millennials want mentoring and coaching, and they want to develop skills and expertise for the future. And while they also want work/life balance, they do appreciate self-management and personal productivity—real pluses for trucking.

Trucking companies also need to understand that millennials aren’t looking for a career or a company with lifelong expectations. In fact, 18 to 36 months is about the average amount of time millennials commit to a job, Farrell notes.

“The idea of permanent employment is dead,” he says, but if a young driver moves on after three years, that’s still a valuable contribution—yet, again, this approach does call for “a significant mind-shift.”

He makes the case that, rather than trying to shoehorn younger drivers into traditional expectations, trucking should embrace the difference. Rather than pitching truck driving as a career, a fleet might tailor a different approach for millennials.

HI-TECH EQUIPMENT

And then there’s the truck itself. Veteran drivers who grew up in the industry  in the late 1960s and through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s knew a different time.

“Owner-operators were out there, and you could go buy a truck and make your living. Trucking was a lifestyle; it was an adventure,” says Kurt Swihart, director of marketing at Kenworth, which has been producing products for the last several years under the distinctive tag line, The Driver’s Truck.

In many cases, these now-older drivers had exposure to heavy equipment like agricultural tools or were “gearheads,” Swihart observes. “That generation of drivers grew up in a mechanically focused environment,” he says. “They were truck experts and knew how trucks worked. They were mechanics and equipment guys.”

Up until about the late 1990s, trucks were mostly mechanical tech, Swihart adds, but they’ve since been shifting to electronic, largely computer-driven machines.  

Younger drivers haven’t had the same background and exposure as the old guard. Their aptitudes, familiarities and expectations tend to be very different when it comes to driving a truck, but they can bring many useful skills to the table, and there are ways to spec trucks that appeal to drivers regardless of age.

If you want to bring younger drivers into the fold, look for trucks that are easier to drive and feel more like cars. Drivers in general today have less experience with manual transmissions, for one thing, so today’s automated manual and automatic transmissions in trucks will appeal more to this generation  of truck drivers.

Some older drivers prefer shifting their own gears, but they fit in here as well. Even if you appreciate a stick in a five-speed passenger car, three times that many in a heavy truck eventually can get wearisome. “The same drivers who have driven a manual transmission for most of their career now ask for a Volvo I-Shift [automated manual] because it has less of an impact on the body,” says Jason Spence, product marketing manager for long haul at Volvo Trucks.

The safety of the truck driver’s “office” is another part of the equation. “While it might not be the first thought on a driver’s mind, most would agree that having a safe truck to operate would top the list,” Spence says. He also points to Volvo’s Active Driver Assist collision mitigation system, which is based on Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems’ Wingman Fusion technology combining radar and video.

“Companies that would like to attract drivers could do so by promoting truck safety features that help the driver and provide alerts to prevent potential collisions,” Spence adds.

GET COMFORTABLE

Going hand in hand with trucks that are easier to drive are ones that don’t beat up the driver who’ll be spending so much time in that vehicle. And here’s another area where trucks today can be very car-like, Swihart notes. “We have an automatic temperature control function. You can turn it to 70 deg., 65 deg., whatever you want, and it’s just like a car,” he says.

Comfort extends to things like diesel- or battery-powered heat and A/C units to provide climate control without having to idle as well as power inverters to provide outlets for refrigerators, microwaves, video game consoles, and more.

Swihart adds that Kenworth particularly focused on making efficient use of that cab space. For instance, a swivel option lets the passenger seat spin around 180 deg. for use like a lounge chair in the sleeper area, and a swivel mount lets you attach and watch a flatscreen TV from the chair or lying in bed.

Piggybacking on comfort, connected technology in trucks today ranges from built-in telematics/fleet management systems, to multimedia displays in the console, to wireless hotspots and Internet. Trucks that feature Internet and satellite radio/TV capability can be more appealing to drivers of any age and can help them stay connected with friends and family.

OEMs are hearing these things consistently. “When we were out talking with drivers as we were making our new LT model, most of the drivers and I would say almost all the fleets wanted to make sure that the vehicle architecture was set up to support the latest and greatest new devices and technologies,” says Steve Gilligan, Navistar vice president of marketing.

At the end of the day, don’t forget the basics. Drivers want to be proud to be seen.

“When it comes to good-looking trucks, that’s what gets drivers in the door,” says Gilligan. “When they see a certain truck that looks good, drivers say, ‘I want to drive that!’ As much as someone might say chrome has no functional purpose, we sure sell a lot of it.”

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