How propane retailers are recruiting drivers

June 18, 2018 By    
photo courtesy of hilco transport

Drivers recruiting other drivers is one possible initiative for the propane industry. Photo courtesy of Hilco Transport

Recruiting and retaining enough truckers is a challenge across all industries, and enlisting candidates to join the ranks of transport and bobtail drivers is further complicated by the nature of the cargo. A rolled-over propane tanker can be a catastrophe.

Bringing new personnel into the industry and equipping them with the proper knowledge and certifications is a priority of both the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) and the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). The two organizations are collaborating on several initiatives to address the issue – mindful that the situation is further exacerbated when harsh winter weather puts pressure on keeping the trucks rolling to ensure adequate product flow.

The 40 percent driver attrition rate within the entire American trucking market was a topic of discussion during the NPGA winter board of directors meeting in Santa Barbara, California. It was noted that Walmart is grappling with a nationwide shortage of 300 to 400 big-rig operators, despite offering $10,000 signing bonuses on top of $60,000 to $70,000 in annual wages for non-hazmat drivers who typically aren’t exposed to the elements as with propane pickups and deliveries.

“Our drivers are hauling hazardous material,” says Stephen Kossuth, vice president of supply and logistics at AmeriGas. “It’s a higher calling we have compared to standard tanker- or box-truck driving.”

The propane industry and the security of its supply are dependent upon reliable transportation. According to Kossuth, without the security of transportation, there is no security of supply, and security of transportation starts with the driver.

“When there’s a supply-point interruption, the person who comes to the rescue is that person driving the transport,” Kossuth explains. “They offer a valuable service to the American economy and they’re keeping people heated in the winter.”

Help from Washington

Photo courtesy of Sheehan Merritt

Brian Merchburger with Autore Oil & Propane in Cedarville, Michigan, an EDP company, prepares a transport for its next delivery. Photo courtesy of Sheehan Merritt

During June’s Propane Days in Washington, D.C., industry representatives were to lobby on behalf of the recently promulgated DRIVE-Safe Act. The bill was introduced with the support of the American Trucking Association (ATA) and the International Foodservice Distributors Association.

According to the bill’s sponsors, the legislation addresses the massive driver shortage affecting the movement of commerce by promoting opportunity and enhanced safety training for emerging members of this growing workforce.

The sponsors contend that commercial drivers are currently stymied by laws in most states that allow individuals to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL) at age 18 but prevent those drivers from moving goods across state lines until they are 21.

In places like the Washington, D.C., metro area, an emerging driver is prohibited from making the 35-minute trip between Arlington, Virginia, and Bethesda, Maryland, but the same driver can haul a load more than six hours roundtrip from Arlington to Norfolk, Virginia.

“This is a common-sense proposal that will open enormous opportunities for the 18-21-year-old population, giving them access to a high-paying profession free of the debt burden that comes with a four-year degree,” says ATA president and CEO Chris Spear. “Moreover, this bill would strengthen training programs beyond current requirements to ensure safety and that drivers are best prepared.”

Propane’s opportunities

Enticing drivers to get behind the wheel of propane transports and bobtails is further complicated by a pattern of existing drivers leaving the industry.

“The boomer generation is aging out,” says Stuart Flatow, PERC’s vice president of safety and training. “You have a whole generation of baby boomers who are looking to retire. The average bobtail driver is 50- to 52-years-old, and that’s pretty old to be driving a bobtail. If they get hurt, the recovery time is a lot longer.”

Flatow says there are a lot of candidates who don’t know about the opportunities to be gained by joining the propane industry, and efforts must be made to attract and educate the younger generation based on their individual desires. A bobtail driver, for example, is usually home every night, while a transport driver can enjoy a sense of over-the-road freedom that comes from limited contact with bosses.

The propane industry is competing with package delivery services, ambulances and an assortment of long-distance, drop-the-trailer-and-go freight-hauling assignments, Flatow notes. Many of these companies are developing training programs and apprenticeship programs to educate their drivers.

“Apprenticeships are key,” Flatow says. “You need to understand what millennials are looking for. You look at 20-somethings and people in high school to work it through.”

For many young people entering the workforce, the concept of job satisfaction ranks high when it comes to what they are looking for in a career, along with the opportunities for advancement and being treated with respect.

“People don’t leave jobs; they leave people,” Flatow says. “You have to show commitment to them, show that they’re able to move up in the company.”

Your training courses should be relevant to the tasks at hand and highlight the hands-on aspects of the job. According to Flatow, training doesn’t necessarily have to be faster; it has to be more effective. Students don’t want to sit in a classroom for three days working through binders full of information they don’t need, he says.

Members of the military transitioning to civilian life are especially attractive recruitment targets. Veterans are hardworking, serious and know how to take orders, making them an ideal fit for the propane industry, Flatow says.

“By accessing these programs, you can make it a lot more attractive for attracting veterans,” says Vets2Techs co-founder Gerry Brien. “We’re working with veterans and bringing them into the industry.”

Many of these veterans have earned hazmat certifications while in the service, and any additional training is covered by the GI Bill. Already more than 70 vets have been placed in propane and fuel oil jobs, driving bobtails and transports alike.

“It’s a good program, and it really matches up with our industry,” says D.D. Alexander, president of Global Gas. “It is particularly beneficial because we don’t have enough young people who want to become transport drivers.”

According to Alexander, the biggest roadblocks for a lot of individuals considering entering this industry are the regulations governing hazmat transportation plus the prospect of midnight propane runs and other perceived inconveniences such as irregular hours.

Bobtail drivers can also experience unpleasant conditions, especially during the heating season.

“They have to get out and pull the hose to the tank, which is sometimes no easy task – dragging it through the snow. Then they have to stand there while it’s loading and unloading,” Alexander says.

Winter woes

Every year gets harder to recruit drivers, says Jimmy Bryant, owner of Bryant Trucking. Some drivers don’t mind hauling in the winter and logging long hours because they make good money, but others will complain about the amount of work.

The driver shortage was apparent for Hilco Transport this past winter as some 10 to 25 percent of its fleet sat idle at times because of driver unavailability.

“The driver shortage is real. The pool of drivers is so much lower than just a few years ago,” says Mark Brookshire, vice president of operations. “We know we have to pay the drivers more to attract them into our business, but the rates are going to have to go up at some point to pay the drivers what they need and what they deserve.”

Hilco Transport has specific requirements for its drivers but is willing to help new hires get certifications they need. According to Brookshire, the company will hire drivers without tanker experience, but wants them to have two years’ experience driving a tractor-trailer. Similarly, Hilco will help drivers get their hazmat endorsement if they don’t have it, but prefers they have it before they come to work for them.

Upon obtaining hazmat certification, a weeklong classroom-based orientation session is conducted at the company’s headquarters.

“It’s product and equipment specific. We cover all the aspects,” Brookshire reports. “We put them through a defensive driving course to be more aware of their surroundings, and after the week we’ll put them riding with an experienced driver.”

AmeriGas’ transport driver attrition rate hovers at 20 to 30 percent, relatively low for the propane industry due to the company’s proactive stance on recruiting and retaining, Kossuth says. Benefits and working conditions are company priorities.

Although drivers are compensated while waiting at terminals or under other bottleneck circumstances, a driver would view the standstill as losing money because owner-operators get paid more when they are on the road. According to Kossuth, as an industry it remains a priority to make sure the lines are moving to further install driver stability.

“You’re constantly having to recruit,” he says. “Anytime you have turnover, there’s a cost to that, so as your turnover increases so does your expense.”

Flexible lifestyle options

According to Mark Zimora, vice president of operations and corporate development at Energy Distribution Partners (EDP), the industry must focus on employer-employee relations.

Employees want flexible hours and benefits, as well as options to fit their families and lifestyles. Most of EDP’s drivers operate within a couple of states.

“We have to be more nimble; there’s more demand than available humans,” Zimora says. “We have a good story to tell for recruiting drivers. Some of our best recruiting initiatives are our own drivers recruiting other drivers – that’s where we’ve had our best success.”

This referral technique works better than printed career advertisements and social media posts because the pitches are coming from people who are already on the job.

A functional, safe and good-looking truck spotted rolling down the roadway is also a great advertisement to attract new drivers, Kossuth says.

“It shows the drivers you are about them and the general public,” he says. “We also offer a lot of latitude for drivers to work with their dispatchers amid a cooperative environment regarding home time and other considerations.”

Flexibility is key to recruiting and keeping good drivers.

“Each of our transportation centers is treated individually,” Zimora reports. “They don’t have to fit into a box and there’s not a lot of red tape – they appreciate a personalized approach.”

Being behind the wheel differs between bobtails and transports. A transport driver might make two or three pickups or drop-offs per day, while a bobtail driver is making 30 or so daily deliveries while personally interacting with the customers, utilizing cordiality in the process.

Zimora observes that the number of drivers approaching retirement is a testament to the industry. People have opted to remain within the propane realm long enough to reach retirement age.

“If I had to do it all over again, that’s what I would do – haul that bottle down the road,” says Bryant, who turns 70 in August.

1 Comment on "How propane retailers are recruiting drivers"

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  1. Frank Wang says:

    There’s just a huge shortage of truck drivers, it’s a job that less and less people are willing to do and the young and upcoming generations are less interested in these jobs no matter the bonuses or payout.