Driving your business

March 1, 2007 By    

Along with trucking industry-equivalent pay and benefits, professional drivers want up-to-date rigs, respect and open communication channels with management and the dispatching staff. As a nationwide shortage of drivers threatens fleet efficiency throughout many trucking-oriented businesses, propane companies have an advantage in that many road-warriors also have a strong desire to be home at night.

If you’re having trouble recruiting and retaining your drivers, identifying the reasons behind the rejections is a critical task, says Joe White, CEO of CostDown Consulting.

“Take a survey to try to define your issues,” he suggests, noting that the while the propane industry seems to have a good level of retention, there is an undercurrent of driver disappointment stemming from the very beginning of the hiring process.

One of the biggest problems companies have with driver retention is that managers are not totally truthful at the interview, according to White.

“You have to be totally truthful about the working conditions, compensation and benefits.” he says.

For example, a glowing account of your health insurance package must include mention of high deductibles or other pertinent details.

Once they’re on board, much of your ability to retain good drivers has to do with how they are treated by fellow employees throughout the business. A demeaning attitude can drive your drivers elsewhere.

Managers also need to fully explain the difference between an over-the-road mindset and the customer service aspects that are crucial for bobtail operaters.

“There is an issue with having to collect cash and deal with delays,” says White, adding how having to shovel their way to a propane tank and other propane-required tasks may prove troublesome if they are not told of these duties in advance.

Keeping your drivers employed during the off-season is another factor that comes into play. White advises that drivers be assigned other jobs to keep them on the payroll – or perhaps a driver-partnership arrangement with a landscaping company or similar summer-oriented business may be a solution.

The condition of the rolling stock is another critical function of attracting and keeping these employees. “If the cab doesn’t stay warm or the tires are worn under snowy conditions your drivers are not going to stay with you,” White says.

Based on an overall transportation industry study he conducted, White lists 11 influences that can steer your drivers elsewhere. If you have a high turnover rate, the reasons can probably be found among them:

  • Compensation: Wages, benefits, bonuses and the percentage of total hours worked that are actually paid for.
  • Communication: Customer requirements, company policies, newsletters, home mailings and any feedback process for driver suggestions.
  • Problem resolution: Equipment breakdowns, delays at customer facilities, payroll problems, special requests and family emergencies.
  • Respect and honesty: Recognition, whether drivers have equal stature with field management and whether they are always told the truth.
  • Actual job duties and compensation the same as recruited for: How job requirements match with what the recruiter said and whether expectations and compensation were clearly and honestly communicated during the interview.
  • Equipment age: Vehicle’s appearance, comfort and image.
  • Equipment Maintenance: Vehicle’s availability, minimum breakdowns.
  • Not enough home time: Load distribution, dispatch hours, whether driver gets home for holidays.
  • Adequate training: Knowledgeable trainers, driver mentors, whether drivers are fully trained before they are expected to perform.
  • Clear and fair working rules: Published and enforced company policy, fair load distribution, whether all drivers are treated equally.
  • Advancement opportunities: Advancement to management or other, higher-paying driver positions.

From management’s perspective, the application of working rules can be particularly important to a company’s success, according to White.

“They’ll let (favored) drivers be unproductive; if it’s noticeable to the others in the fleet they’ll start doing it too,” or else they’ll become disenchanted with the differing treatment.

Turning the corner

Propane marketers need to make clear the distinction between driving a bobtail and how it differs from a point-to-point over-the-road-type position, says consultant Denny Carroll at Propane Resources.

“They deal with many other things than just driving,” he points out, referring to the strict safety procedures and customer service requirements.

“You have to have somebody who likes talking to people” rather than a solitary attitude of simply knocking down the highway miles along the open road.

“I’m more interested in looking at the people skills and customer service skills than I am at their driving,” Carroll explains.

Some candidates may balk at the training regimen, he notes. “You can’t go out on the street and hire someone and have them productive in 30 days,” he asserts.

Pay may be a concern if a driver making $40,000 to $50,000 a year over-the-road is asked to drive a bobtail for $30,000.

“Look for people who have the qualities that you want,” says Carroll. Often a propane marketer will settle for a person who simply possesses a commercial driver’s license rather that a career-oriented individual eager to embrace a propane-specific training program.

Carroll also emphasizes the year-round employment issue. “There’s always a problem with what you do with them in the summertime. The most prevalent is that they go out and do all the tank painting and odd jobs, or they’ll have another business that they’re trying to do,” he says.

These can include delivering ice or moving other fuels such as diesel or gasoline, plus landscaping seems to be a common sideline.

Among winter-only operations, “the seasonal guys tend to be firefighters or farmers. A lot of these bobtail drivers have been there a long time and there’s not a lot of turnover if it’s a quality job.”

A caring approach

Transport drivers at Niagara Energy LLC in North Collins, N.Y., earn the same amount of pay and benefits (100 percent paid health care) as typical over-the-road operators; bobtail drivers make more money because they’ve been with the company longer and that position represents a promotion.

“We’re more family-oriented,” says James Renaldo, director of sales and marketing. “Drivers tend to respond to that better – and we’re just darn nice people to work for. We actually care about how they are doing and we take an interest in them. They’re not going to get that at a larger company.”

Annual raises and reviews are offered, and the rolling stock is top-notch. “Our gear has a lot to do with it,” Renaldo reports. “Our guys don’t want to be driving junk. We’re constantly investing in our trucks and we take very good care of our equipment.”

In California, transport drivers at Delta Liquid Energy are paid in line with non-propane over-the-road positions; bobtail operators are hired from within. “We offer a fair wage, fair working conditions and we try to meet their needs,” says Don Dockstader, Delta’s wholesale department manager for all nine outlets.

“They may not drive to New York, but they’re still driving 80,000 pounds on our highways. They are professional drivers – that’s what they do for a living.”

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