DEMANDS ON DRIVERS continue to increase at the same time that the availability of drivers for all segments of the industry remains low. Including the distribution portion of the industry, which began feeling the driver shortage several years after it was painfully apparent to truckload carriers, trucking needs a minimum of 80,000 new drivers to maintain stable capacity.
Drivers in wholesale grocery and foodservice distribution say that the relationship with management can be one of the most important factors in worker retention. These drivers will change jobs if they feel that managers do not provide a supportive environment, says Bill Hall, a distribution driver for Sysco Food Services of Minnesota in St Paul. Drivers need to feel that management will stand behind them in disagreements with receivers, especially with demanding customers. This is not to say that drivers are always right, but they need to feel that management will attempt to work out an equitable solution to driver concerns, he says.
The shortage of drivers makes it difficult for companies to provide for the needs of its employees, says Kevin Moelker of Spartan Stores in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A driver shortage reduces transportation capacity and makes distributors lean more heavily on those drivers that can be counted on to perform at a high level regularly. To ensure a stable driver force, companies need to implement a strong pay and benefits package along with making the attempt to limit their demands on transportation. Distributors need to work hard to maintain a large enough work force to handle the required deliveries, he says.
Some companies begin recruiting potential drivers while they are still at an early age. These companies take a tractor and trailer to schools for demonstrations, letting children climb in the cab and get into the trailer using the delivery ramp. The idea is to get youngsters interested in delivery work long before they can begin to think about driving.
Other distributors recruit directly from high schools. “The idea is to show older kids that delivery driving is a good job that pays good wages and gets workers home every night,” a driver says. “We want kids to see the best side of driving a truck for a living, not the more difficult life they could encounter as a driver in a longhaul truckload environment.”
A big part of recruiting young drivers, who have not yet made a career choice, is changing the stereotype of the truck driver. It is a hard job, but it need not involve four solid weeks on the road with only one bath a week, a distribution driver says.
Advantages of Distribution Jobs
Distribution drivers have a big advantage over those who work for truckload carriers. Many distribution firms use their drivers to move product from one distribution center to another or from a distribution center to remote locations for subsequent delivery. These drivers' only responsibility is driving; they never touch a carton of product. However, unlike a driver for a truckload carrier, they get home regularly. They may have to work weekends, but at sometime in nearly every day, they are home. Food distribution companies point to this as a huge competitive advantage in the race to hire enough qualified drivers.
The amount of physical labor required from a delivery driver varies. In the foodservice segment, the driver handles every carton of product. In supermarket fleets, the driver more likely is required only to assist store personnel in unloading. In such cases, drivers are not required to unload, but if compensation is activity-based, they probably will help with the unloading to cut total delivery time and improve their own pay. This is in direct contrast to the work required of truckload drivers who often are required to load and unload trailers. At some supermarket chains, the delivery driver simply drops a loaded trailer and picks up one that has been previously unloaded by store personnel.
Appearance is a big part of the image building process. “I've had people at our stores tell me that I don't look like a truck driver,” says David Bolden who works for the H E Butt Grocery Company at its Houston Retail Support Center. “I always ask what truck drivers are supposed to look like. Hiring the right people often will result in the right image. HEB hires only drivers who have a minimum of two years safe driving experience and no — zero — traffic violations. New employees are treated with appropriate respect, but still, they are trained to do things the HEB way. That ensures efficiency, and it ensures that our image, which in Texas is high, remains polished.”
Provide Additional Training
Another way to find drivers is to hire personnel that are not fully qualified for tractor-trailer operation and provide the additional training they need, Hall says. At Sysco Food Services of Minnesota, this training is provided in company equipment by a local community college. In addition, these drivers, who are qualified for straight truck operation, can make local deliveries with Sysco trucks while they are in training to operate tractors and trailers. “It is not as though the company has people on the payroll who can't work,” Hall says. “We are training them for a more difficult job, but they still can be productive to the company while they learn.”
Compensation is paramount in building a strong driver organization. However, pay alone cannot provide the entire motivational package. Companies need to find ways to reward drivers that do not involve wages. That is because pay can become an issue among drivers, says Mike Burton, vice-president, transportation, for the Tibbett & Britten Group, North America, a major logistics provider of warehousing and delivery services for the food distribution industry. Tibbett & Britten operates distribution centers for a number of major supermarket chains in North America. Some distributors attempt to motivate employees with performance-related pay, a situation that can become contentious, Burton says.
Performance pay seems to work best when it involves drivers in activities outside their regular duties, Bolden says. Every distribution center in the company has drivers who teach defensive driving to other drivers, for instance. The company also appoints some drivers to the safety awareness committee. Taking drivers out of their daily environment and putting them into a situation where extra effort results in extra pay can be a motivating factor that does not cause friction with other drivers, he says.
Gifts are a good way to motivate drivers, another foodservice driver from Michigan says. It's not so much that drivers want or need the gifts, as it is the satisfaction they receive from public recognition by the company in front of their peers. A simple “thank you” and a handshake often provides the pat-on-the-back that drivers want as a reward for their efforts. Many drivers enjoy being thanked as much or more than they want extra pay. Other drivers can see the public recognition, while extra pay remains mostly unseen, he says.
Some of these motivational efforts can be rather simple. Some companies give awards for their best-dressed driver and for the best kept tractor. Usually, these are awarded quarterly. These awards are taken further by selecting the best-dressed driver of the year from among those receiving quarterly recognition.
Drivers say that appearance is important, especially for those who wear uniforms. “We are representing our company from the time we put the uniform on until we get home at night,” a driver says. “Knowing that we are the symbol of the entire company, we should wear that uniform with pride.”
Drivers think of uniforms as a big positive factor. This is increased when the company provides a clothing allowance for uniform upkeep. Drivers like to look sharp; they like to look as though they are part of a high-quality organization.
Safety Awards Motivate Drivers
Safety awards play a big part in driver motivation. H E Butt is a supermarket chain with stores throughout south and central Texas. The company has a large number of locations in major cities such as Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, but the majority of its fleet miles are logged on rural highways. Driving safety is defined as avoiding any accident. Accidents have no monetary definition. Scratching a trailer on a fence post counts as an accident just like running into another truck.
Bolden says that HEB drivers are recognized for every 100,000 miles of safe driving. Safe drivers are presented with a belt buckle following their first 100,000 miles of accident-free, incident-free driving and at every subsequent 100,000-mile interval. At 500,000 miles, drivers receive a silver ring. One million miles of safe driving results in induction into the company driving hall of fame at a company banquet that usually is held in March. Five drivers in the fleet have logged more than two million accident-free miles. A driver-of-the-year is selected from members of the company hall of fame. Participation in company committees and other activities outside the normal of scope of the job is considered in choosing the driver of the year.
Safe driving results in additional paid time off at HEB. Drivers who run all year without an accident are granted a safety day. That is an additional paid holiday during the following year, Bolden says. Perfect attendance and timeliness results in an additional day off.
Drivers Define Safety Performance
Drivers make many of the decisions about safety performance. A committee of three drivers and two management personnel reviews all accidents. If a driver is charged with an accident, a disciplinary letter is placed in the driver's personnel file. This letter is subject to appeal before a second review board, also made up of drivers and managers. Decisions of the accident review committee can be overturned. However, the focus of HEB's safety program and its accident review process is preventability, Bolden says.
At HEB, store personnel select a driver from each division for recognition. In return, drivers are asked to rate store receiving efficiency — are they ready for delivery; is the backroom clean, is the load received in the minimum necessary time?
Recognition can be aimed specifically at unusual or seasonal problems, Moelker says. For instance, vehicle idle time can drive up costs in large fleets, particularly for those that work in colder climates such as Michigan. To regain control of engine idle time, Spartan Stores instituted a program of recognizing the 10 drivers with the least weekly idle time every week. The 10 drivers were presented with a small pin for their work. It was a small gesture, he says, but it brought recognition to the 10 drivers that made the best weekly effort among the total workforce of 180 drivers. Walking into a store wearing that little symbol was gratifying, Moelker says.
Sysco has an incentive program that aims at reducing delivery errors, Hall says. The fiscal rewards are small, but the results for the company add up. Holding delivery errors or product damage to less than one occurrence per 250 pieces handled results in an additional $5 in weekly pay. As the number of pieces handled successfully rises, the incentives become larger.
The big payoff to the company has been in reduced delivery damage, down from an average of $2,000 to $3,000 per week before the incentives started to less than $1,200 at the end of the first week, he says. In reality, locating the source of delivery damage is almost impossible. It may happen during order selection, during loading, or during delivery. Knowing that, the company simply looked at damage costs across the entire range of distribution activity. The result has been more care with product by everyone.
The program pays drivers for saving the company money. “Drivers with good performance can make about $25 more every week while providing a huge reduction in product damage and delivery errors for the company,” Hall says. “In addition, absenteeism fell as well. If people feel that they have a chance to make a little extra money — roughly $100 a month in this case — they will make the effort to participate.”
Other programs use rewards and sanctions. For instance, cases are coded by route and stop. If a driver finds an improperly coded carton in a load, correcting the mistake results in more pay. At the same time, the incentive pool for the loading crew that made the mistake is reduced. The result is cooperation between departments to ensure that full bonuses are paid.
Although the distribution industry suffers from the driver shortage, the impact is not as noticeable among supermarket and foodservice fleets as it is in truckload fleets. In general, distribution fleets can count on driver turnover rates of just a few percentage points a year. This is in stark contrast to turnover of 100% or more that is common for truckload carriers. Working conditions and the image of the job are two important factors in this. Distribution drivers work stable schedules and are home on a regular basis, usually every night. Truckload drivers cannot count on such luxuries. Two to three weeks on the road is common. The single thread running through workforce issues for distributors and carriers alike is the need for more drivers. Convincing young workers that they can count on a career as a driver is a major task for every business that must use trucks.