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How to Build a Driver Retention Program That is Rock Solid
18 mins read

It’s no secret that the trucking industry is currently under strain. With driver shortages and an ever-increasing demand for shipping, things are feeling tight. Add to that the astronomically high driver turnover rates we’re seeing, and you can quickly understand why so many companies are starting to struggle when it comes to staffing – both in driver acquisition and driver retention.

In fact, driver retention was the #2 issue of motor carriers according to the 2021 American Transportation Research Institute’s (ATRI) annual survey. As we discussed last week, the driver shortage was the top concern for the fifth consecutive year. 

Just as we see with customers, driver retention is much easier and cheaper than constantly trying to find new staff to replace those you’ve lost. With some companies finding it difficult to hold onto drivers for more than a few months—or even weeks—driver retention must become a priority.

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The good news is that improving truck driver retention will trickle down (just as it does with customer retention) to improve your ability to attract and acquire new drivers. As you can see, driver retention is certainly not to be overlooked! In this article, we’ll guide you through the best truck driver retention ideas, programs, and strategies to reduce your turnover.

Driver Retention Meaning: What Are We Talking About?

First, let’s get clear on what exactly driver retention means.

Truck driver retention means that you retain (as in keep) employed drivers for the long term. Many companies in the trucking industry are experiencing high turnover, which means drivers are leaving almost as frequently as they’re coming. It should be any company’s goal to improve its driver retention rate and reduce its driver turnover rate.

Why is Driver Turnover so High?

The reasons for driver turnover being high varies from company to company, but there are a number of common factors. One reason for driver turnover is, of course, the pandemic. COVID-19 has undoubtedly been felt in the trucking industry, just as it has in all others.

The National Institute of Health estimates that over 50% of all truck drivers are “obese,” which puts them at a much higher risk of severe or even life-threatening symptoms if they catch COVID. This also means that many drivers suffer from health conditions that would make them more likely to stop driving and stay at home for the duration of the pandemic.

Of course, this isn’t the only reason for a high turnover rate. Some of the other reasons include:

  • Feeling like they’re treated like a machine, not a person
  • Finding their company has no work-life balance culture
  • Spending too much time away from their family
  • Poor management and scheduling
  • Overwork (ironically, often due to the high turnover in the first place)
  • Only hearing about their failings, never getting praise
  • Underpaid or under-benefitted
  • Concerns about ill-maintained equipment
  • Knowing they are in demand and accepting better terms at another company

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Must-Know Truck Driver Retention Statistics

The turnover rate in the trucking industry is steadily rising and currently sits at 90 percent for carriers doing over $30M in revenue, according to the ATA (American Trucking Associations). Smaller carriers (under $30M in revenue) are not immune to the high statistics and have a reported turnover rate of 85 percent.

Both numbers are alarming and suggest that if you currently have 100 drivers, only 10 of those would be the same next year. Considering that each new hire costs an average of $8,000 just to get them in the driver’s seat, not including their wage or fuel in the vehicle, losing and replacing all those drivers isn’t something you can ignore.

If you were to hire 90 new drivers, it could cost you a whopping $720,000. You could spend a fraction of that figure generating and implementing driver retention programs and strategies, and still walk away with money in your pocket.

Another statistic you need to know is about driver shortages. We know they’re happening, but the ATA’s statistics are chilling. The ATA projects that we may be 1,000,000 drivers short in the next 10 years. That makes it more important than ever to develop truck driver retention strategies while working on new ways to foster new, talented drivers.

What are Truck Driver Retention Programs?

A driver retention program is a program a company puts together to encourage drivers to stay with them long-term. We’ll discuss strategies you can use within your driver retention program shortly, but it’s important to understand that any program must be built on a foundation of honesty while aiming to constantly improve as a team.

If you bait and switch new drivers (purposefully or not) with a rosy outlook of how it will be to work for you, only to drop the façade a few weeks in, you’ll find your new drivers leave almost as quickly as they come. You’ve got to avoid having a “honeymoon” period and maintain a positive work environment at all times.

That doesn’t mean it has to be sunshine and smiles all the time, life isn’t like that, but it does mean that the teams supporting and managing your drivers need to be organized and understand what is important to your drivers. Your drivers also need to be thought of as part of the team, not as someone who simply turns up, checks in and checks out. They need to be aligned with the company’s values and understand the goals of the company.

Now we understand what a driver retention program is, let’s dive into the strategies you can use to put together a winning program.

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How to Retain Truck Drivers: 7 Driver Retention Strategies

1. Understand the Value Exchange

Money alone is rarely the answer. Yes, truck drivers want better pay (who doesn’t?), but we all know that money alone is not always the best motivator. If bills will still be paid, no amount of money will keep someone in a bad situation for long.

That said, the exchange of value is important. Your drivers need to feel like they’re being compensated fairly for their time and skill. This shouldn’t just be the money that is deposited in their account at the end of each pay cycle, you also need to consider benefits that will make them feel safe and secure.

Remember that drivers have other options, so being a full-time (or part-time) employee needs to be the easier option. That means you should ensure or consider offering an employment package that makes your drivers feel nurtured. This may include:

  • Diverse pension options
  • Health care (most people will switch jobs for this, especially if it covers their family)
  • Dental and eye care
  • Better or more flexible hours
  • Sufficient time off
  • Free gym memberships (or similar)
  • Free phones/devices
  • Bonuses and rewards

If you’re not sure what would make your drivers happier, a raise, or an added benefit, ask them. It’s also worth checking that your pay is in line with what others are paying, or a little better. If they know they’re being well-compensated, they’ll be far more inclined to stick around.

2. Cultivate a Feedback Culture

If you want to improve driver retention rates, you’ve got to get feedback from your drivers so they can tell you what you’re doing right (and wrong), and also complain when necessary. Give them an anonymous channel to speak to HR. There are some sophisticated solutions for this, but a Google Form will work just as well.

Once you’ve opened channels to receive feedback, make sure you act on it. The feedback you gather is valuable data that can help you retain truck drivers for longer and save money. It can cost up to $25,000 to replace a driver, so take this feedback seriously.

It’s important not to dismiss drivers’ gripes – make sure you have your ear to the ground and listen for potential problems. If you notice a pattern, take note and take action when necessary.

Making changes can do wonders for improving your driver retention rate. But, you can’t keep everyone. Sometimes people will decide to move on to something different or move home to be close to family, but sometimes, they’ve realized they’re just not a good fit for your company. No one likes the conflict of employees leaving, but you must know why drivers are leaving. Don’t be afraid to ask them to give you feedback – ideally, don’t do this face-to-face with a manager, since this can feel too intense. Instead, ask them to answer a few questions on their last day.

3. Make Health & Safety a Priority

Trucking is a relatively high-risk profession, often making the top in Most Dangerous Job in America lists. The more you can do to emphasize that you’re taking every (reasonable) precaution to keep them safe, the better. Schedule regular maintenance, get their concerns checked out when they tell you about them and invest in good quality safety features.

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Don’t forget that health and safety isn’t just about the equipment and staying alert, but also mental health. For many, mental health is still difficult to talk about publically, so try to encourage good habits that help drivers stay healthy, physically and mentally. Encourage drivers to take regular time off, get exercise and fresh air (whether it be lifting weights or going hunting, it all counts), and use techniques to lower stress.

While suggesting they take up meditation may be a hard sell to some, make sure they have the tools to manage their mental health in whatever way works for them. Sometimes, simply ensuring they have a good Wi-Fi connection on the road (for long-haul) is enough to help them stay connected. For others, having the option to take a pet along for the ride will greatly improve not only their mental health, but also their job satisfaction.

4. Recognize Stellar Performance

No matter the industry, feeling like you’re undervalued or in a thankless position destroys job satisfaction and can quickly become a primary motivator for why an employee looks for a new position.

Simply saying “thank you” every time they climb out of the truck isn’t enough. Instead, consider creating milestones and awards for your drivers. Offer gifts (can be small!) for longevity, and make sure you recognize when a driver goes above and beyond. Even just a quick text from a manager to say that they appreciated what they did will go a long way to keeping your drivers around.

Make sure you don’t overlook introverted, quiet drivers who are always punctual and get the job done. These reliable drivers will leave if they feel overlooked and underappreciated for their natural ability to just get on with the job.

Consider hosting an award ceremony at the end of the year (ideally at the end of the year party – more on that shortly) to recognize the employees that have excelled. You can also give out funny awards, just make sure they’re all in good humor.

5. Build a Team, Find a Family

Using the word “family” to describe company culture can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, calling your team your “family” can accurately represent how you look after one another, but it can also represent a negative work environment. There’s a lot of businesses that call their team culture a “family” but weaponize the word to mean that everyone must do as everyone else does (no individualism) or keep quiet if they’re unhappy about something.

Fortunately, you can have a positive family culture if you cultivate a team that looks out for one another, shares the same values, and works to excel individually and as a team. Done right, it means that you are happy to see workplace friendships and have yearly events, especially if you value being family-oriented.

Arranging yearly events such as an Easter egg hunt for your employee’s children (or grandchildren) in spring, a BBQ in the summer, a Halloween costume competition in the fall (for adults or kids), and an annual end of year party in December will help bring your team together for fun a few times a year and start an annual tradition that will encourage longevity and excite new staff.

6. Make Work-Life Balance a Priority

We’ve touched on this before, but work-life balance is one of the key reasons why drivers leave. They want to work reasonable hours and get to spend time with their families. How you manage your drivers will depend on the type of work they’re doing and your needs but try to create an environment in which your drivers can thrive.

First, try to optimize their routes. This has become the standard for delivery drivers who deliver to the end customer’s door but isn’t always done in other areas. Try to shorten trip times and keep in touch with your drivers to help them reduce their time on the road so they can get home quickly, without cutting corners.

Next, talk to your drivers and ask them about their ideal working schedules. You may find that some would love to work early morning until early afternoon every day, and never do late shifts. For long haul, you may find your drivers would prefer to do a few back-to-back trips and then have more time off to spend with family. This can take some scheduling, but if you get it right, while working with your companies needs and regulations, you can find your stride and become the company to work for in your area.

7. Invest in High-Quality Equipment

Where possible, invest in high-quality equipment. Truck drivers take pride in what they drive, so if they’re the only one on the road driving around in an old truck or dealing with old equipment, it will reflect badly on your company. Keeping things well maintained is another part of this, which we already touched on in the health and safety point above.

The number one driver retention strategy is to speak to and listen to your drivers and be open to their honest opinions. If your retention rates are low, this can be a painful process, but it will pay dividends in the long run. Remember, if your drivers are happy, feel valued, and love working for you, they’re not only not going to want to leave, but they’ll attract other truck drivers who also want to work for a company like yours. With time and effort, you can become one of the sought-after trucking companies with low turnover rates everyone in the area wants to work for.

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