Stevens Transport trains entry-level drivers at company school

Truck drivers and fresh produce share one important trait: homegrown always seems best. Garden grown produce may not exhibit the size or color of the store bought variety, but it always has the advantage of total freshness. Drivers follow the same pattern. Those trained at home are most likely to follow company rules and fit most completely into the corporate culture.

As an industry, commercial motor carriers hire more than 400,000 drivers a year. About 80% of those are experienced workers in the national labor pool of more than three million drivers moving from one carrier to the next in what is called a churning effect. However, trucking still needs new drivers to replace those who retire or simply leave the industry for other careers. Most estimates suggest that the industry needs to generate about 80,000 new drivers annually to replace its losses.

Two driving schools

It was against this background that Stevens Transport founded the first of its two driving schools. The original Stevens school started at company headquarters in Dallas, Texas, in October 1992. The second school began in Houston in 1996. Training is conducted at the Stevens terminal in Dallas by Stevens personnel and is provided by a third party contractor in Houston.

The procedure for entering either school is the same. Stevens Transport recruits and screens students. Then they enroll as students in the schools. In Dallas, training takes place at the Stevens headquarters terminal where roughly 10 acres of the 50-acre site are devoted to the school. Stevens Transport equipment is used at both locations. Although background checks and other screening such as physicals and drug tests are complete by the time students enter school, they are not Stevens employees. They are, however, given a job if training is completed successfully. Graduates are placed on the company payroll after completion of the school and the first of two orientation programs.

When the first training course was founded, Stevens, today a 22-year-old truckload carrier, was generating a little more than $95 million a year and operating a fleet of approximately 350 tractors and 600 trailers. Four years later, when the Houston school started, Stevens had grown to a fleet of almost 700 tractors and 1,150 trailers generating $131 million per year. Now Stevens runs 1,325 tractors plus 260 independent contractors along with more than 2,000 refrigerated trailers. With its conversion program now complete, all of those trailers are 53 ft long. For the past several years, the fleet has grown by at least 150 trucks a year.

Heavy reliance on schools

The two company-sponsored schools are vital to the well being of Stevens Transport, says Steve Aaron, chairman. The company depends on entry-level drivers to operate the fleet. Fewer than 10% of drivers are hired from the pool that churns from carrier to carrier. In general, Stevens Transport hires drivers from its two schools and from driver training schools around the country. Stevens finishes all entry-level driver training with the company's initial orientation and a five-week assignment to a company trainer in regular fleet operation.

“In simple terms, the truck fleet on the highway is our factory, and drivers are our production workers,” Aaron says. “We can't operate without our two schools or without the other schools around the country that help train our drivers.”

Although lower than most, Stevens Transport still experiences 70% driver turnover during the first year of employment. If a driver will stay through the first full year, turnover drops dramatically in the years that follow. “At our current size, we need about 1,750 fulltime company drivers,” Aaron says. “Of those 1,750, about 350 are senior drivers who also act as trainers. To keep our trucks running, we have to put at least 2,000 applicants a year through our initial orientation. We do our own training as a way of screening drivers. We want stable employees, not job hoppers.”

Economic conditions have reduced the critical driver shortage at many truckload carriers, says Mike Richey, executive vice-president at Stevens. With the lower demand for freight services and a high number of motor carrier failures, the pool of trained drivers spreads across a smaller number of trucks. In addition, an influx of commercial driver training schools during the past 18 months has increased the number of drivers entering the industry, he says.

Severe shortage possible

However, the balance between available drivers and truck capacity sits on a narrow balance, Richey says. The Student Finance Corporation, a financial services company that once made many of the loans needed by potential drivers to pay for their training, recently halted all its finance operations. This lack of funding could cause many schools to scale back training activity or even suspend operation. At the same time that funding for driver training has become scarce, economic activity has started to grow. With a growing economy, many workers who have taken truck driver training could leave the industry to stay at home in construction or retail jobs. With the number of schools closing and the number of stay-at-home jobs rising, trucking could face a severe driver shortage again almost immediately, Richey says.

At Stevens Transport, driver turnover occurs in two separate ways. The first turnover category is among workers who have decided to look at trucking as a career. As training progresses, these workers decide against trucking and leave the training program. Usually this happens after the three weeks of formal training, but before final qualification as a solo driver. The second category is among those who have become qualified as first-seat drivers. Sometime during the first year on the job, these workers change their minds and opt for a job that keeps them closer to home.

“We try to explain what the job is about and the kind of sacrifices being a truck driver entails,” Richey says. “We explain that driving for an irregular route truckload carrier can mean three to five weeks at a time away from home. We explain that we try as hard as possible to work with drivers who need to be home for special occasions. But as much as we explain and as hard as we try, we can't meet all the expectations that some drivers have for the job. If we can get drivers qualified to run solo or in the first seat of a team, we've got a good chance of retaining them.

“In fact, retention comes with experience. After a while, drivers begin to learn the Stevens system and see how their dispatchers are routing them. After a while, they begin to get home much more often, sometimes as quickly as seven to 10 days. It's almost as if drivers and dispatchers train one another how to work together. Those arrangements are informal between drivers and dispatchers. As a company, we tell drivers that we will get them home for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. We try to give them a choice, but operational necessity really is the deciding factor.”

Sixty new drivers weekly

With its emphasis on newly trained drivers, schools are vital to Stevens Transport. The company starts an average of 60 new drivers through orientation every week. Usually 40% of those new drivers are trained in Stevens' schools. Although less than 50% of the Stevens driver base lives within 100 miles of Dallas, the company is careful to limit its recruiting in areas served by commercial schools that provide drivers to Stevens. “We use lots of schools, and we don't recruit against our partner schools,” Richey says.

Stevens actually runs two orientation programs. The first orientation is a four-day session at the end of school. Following that orientation, all drivers are assigned to a company trainer for five weeks. Trainers have exceptional safety records, have all received special training for their extra job, and have been at Stevens Transport for at least a year. In that five weeks of training as part of a team, recent school graduates are run throughout the Stevens freight network. “We run a lot of freight to the Northeast, so we make sure they go to New York and Boston,” Richey says. “We haul produce, so we show them how to work with the packing sheds in California and how to deal with LA traffic.”

To work as a trainer, Stevens' drivers attend a four-day workshop to learn training techniques and how to work as a team with students. After the initial train-the-trainer program, trainers attend classes for periodic recertification. “We want two vital things from our trainers,” Richey says. “We want them to produce safe, skilled, professional drivers, and we want them to keep up the Stevens Transport sales pitch to ensure that students stay with the company once they are qualified.”

The five weeks with a trainer is a period of mutual evaluation. The trainer provides constant feedback and writes up reports on trainees. To ensure that training has the desired effect, Stevens also ask trainees to evaluate their trainers, Richey says.

Counselors help new drivers

In addition to the trainers, Stevens employs five counselors to help young drivers cope with the stresses of becoming a truck driver. The counselors all have been drivers, and they know the danger signs for someone who is considering leaving the company.

Following the five weeks with a senior trainer, new drivers are paired as teams for an additional three weeks for final qualification. At the end of that three weeks, drivers get another three days of orientation before being sent on the road as a first-seat or solo driver.

For its schools, Stevens wants pure entry-level drivers with little or no prior experience. At the Dallas school, the program runs three weeks including weekends. Ten new students begin training every Monday morning in Dallas. Of those 10, eight or nine stay for the whole three weeks. The dropout rate is higher for the last eight weeks of training. Of students who enroll in one of the two Stevens schools, 55% to 57% stay in the program to become a first-seat driver. For all drivers who enter orientation, about half drop out before final qualification.

The Dallas school is set up to train 30 students at a time with five students for each of six instructors. Houston has three instructors dedicated to the Stevens Transport program. Training is available for students who use English as a second language. Two of the instructors in Dallas speak Spanish. The schools can expand as needed. The only limiting factor on school enrollment, Richey says, is the number of students who want to enroll.

Drive on the second day

Nothing can replace behind-the-wheel experience, so the goal of the Stevens Transport school is to get drivers in a truck as quickly as possible. In Dallas, students actually begin driving on the second day. In Houston, the first driving experience follows several days of classroom work.

“The difference between the two programs is in the approach to driving credentials,” says Joe Upton, director of education at Stevens Transport. “In Dallas, we require students to come to us with all their official paperwork already in hand. Other schools usually spend most of the first week of training working up student credentials.”

Upton says that Stevens Transport trains students as though they had never seen a truck. The introduction is so simple that telling students, “this is a truck,” is almost no exaggeration, he says. “The first lesson on the first day, as soon as names are exchanged, is instruction on how to enter and exit the vehicle,” Upton says. “Then we go over the walk-around inspection that precedes starting a trip. We want them in the truck and able to start and stop by the end of the first day. We have a track with a long straight available for that purpose.”

The first acquaintance with a heavy truck involves the tractor only. However, by the second Tuesday of training, students are on city streets outside the Stevens Transport fence. Outside the fence, they drive complete combinations with 48-ft trailers. The only differences between training trailers and regular fleet equipment are length — 48 ft instead of 53 ft — and configuration; training trailers are dry vans instead of refrigerated trailers.

Taking a tractor and trailer outside the fence into traffic is an eye-opening experience for most students. “They have spent a week on our teaching course that has a 10-mph speed limit,” Upton says. “Outside the fence for the first time, our biggest problem as instructors is getting them to drive fast enough.”

Backing and patience

Instructors teach the full range of driving skills, but concentrate on two primary requirements to succeed as a professional driver, Upton says. Students must learn to back a tractor and trailer safely and accurately, and they must exhibit the patience required to handle a large, heavy vehicle in congested traffic. “We remind students constantly that they make a minimum of 164 separate decisions every minute that they are behind the wheel,” he says. “We stress that every one of those decisions must be carefully considered, but made in a split second. Hesitation in making the correct decision often is just as bad as making a mistake. Impatience with other traffic can be the worst mistake of all.”

Stevens Transport goes to great lengths to make training realistic. For instance, most schools use traffic barrels to mark backing lanes. “We discovered that students don't get all that concerned about backing into a plastic barrel,” Upton says. “To increase that level of concern, we use real trailers on either side of our backing course. Students still make mistakes and bump one of the other trailers, but they take it much more seriously than hitting a barrel. It's a lot like having a car accident. They feel it happen, see the damage, and don't want to repeat the experience. Since we started using real trailers in training, our frequency of backing accidents has fallen considerably, both in school and in fleet operation.”

The training schedule is fairly intense. School runs from 7 am to 4 pm Monday through Friday and from 7 am to noon on Saturday for the first two weeks. In the third week, school runs from 7 am to 4 pm on Monday through Thursday and from 7 am to noon on Friday. Students take two tests on the final Friday before graduation. Certificates of graduation are held until after the first four-day orientation program.

Heavy investment in students

Both Stevens Transport and the students have a significant amount invested by the end of school. The company estimates total cost for training students and running them through orientation and qualification at $5,000 per driver. “The cost to students can be relatively high, depending on which school we're talking about,” Richey says. “Tuition costs between $5,900 and $10,000 are fairly common at many commercial schools.

“Obviously, we want drivers, not money. We don't want to collect a single cent from our students, and the price of our program is lower than that at most commercial schools. As a part of the program, we do have them sign a note at the beginning of training. If they stay with the company for a year after graduation, we forgive the note. We also help pay for training at other schools. We reimburse students from outside schools for their training costs at $100 per month as long as they stay at Stevens Transport.”

In addition to instructors, Stevens Transport has a lot of equipment dedicated to its school. To train students in equipment identical to that they will drive in the highway fleet, the company has converted 14 three-year-old Kenworth T2000 tractors to mobile classrooms. Extra doors have been added to the sleeper berth curbside to provide entry for four students. The sleeper configuration has been modified with seating and safety restraints. To show the four riding students what is happening in front of the student driver, a partial set of dashboard instruments with speedometer and tachometer is suspended from the ceiling between the sleeper and the driving compartment.

The instructor sits in the passenger seat and has duplicate gauges as well. The instructor cannot steer, but can override the brakes and has an engine kill switch for use in emergencies. “We've used the brakes a few times over the course of 10 years,” Upton says. “I don't know of an instructor ever having to kill the engine.”

Stevens Transport has almost $200,000 invested in equipment modifications for the school in addition to the residual value of the tractors and trailers. “It costs $12,000 to convert a highway tractor to a training tractor,” Aaron says.

Once drivers are trained and qualified, the next challenge is retaining them, Richey says. “We think we've found two keys to retention,” he says. “First, we have to spend that eight weeks of qualification training warning drivers about everything we can think of that could constitute a surprise on the road. The more surprises we can defuse, the better chance we have to retain a satisfied driver. For instance, we talk about the little things that can rob them of time and money. An innocent pastime such as playing video games at a truckstop while waiting for the next load can eat up a lot of cash, for example. We have to teach them how to handle freight and how to deal with lumpers. Stevens Transport pays for unloading, but the company wants to pay reasonable rates, not always the first figure quoted.

“A second key to successful retention is teaching new drivers how to manage their business life. It's true that Stevens' drivers are employees and subject to company direction, but truck drivers are independent and control their own destiny to a great extent. We have to show them how to maximize the miles they run for maximum income. The goal should be to run 2,500 to 2,700 miles a week. We also have to teach them how to manage that income to make sure it gets home to their families. For instance, drivers who take big advances before trips get a smaller settlement check when paid. We certainly encourage direct deposit as a way to get their money home.”

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