Vets fill truck driving positions for propane companies

January 4, 2016 By    
Photo: Flynn Propane

Photo: Flynn Propane

For decades, it seems, professional drivers have been disappearing slowly across different industries.

According to a study from the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the number of drivers with hazmat endorsements has plummeted in recent years. Drivers of hazmat vehicles come from various industries and help to transport numerous hazardous materials, including gasoline, diesel, oxygen, explosives, radioactive products and, of course, propane.

Boyd Stephenson, vice president of supply and security with ATA, says the number of drivers with hazmat endorsements decreased 40 percent between 2005 and 2010, which he attributes in part to stricter background checks.

Several people in the propane industry also say they’ve seen the driver pool dwindle for years.

“You go in front of a bunch of marketers and ask if they’re having problems with [hiring and retaining drivers], and they all raise their hands,” says Stuart Flatow, the Propane Education & Research Council’s (PERC) vice president of safety and training. “I would say that is a critical issue.”

The average age of a bobtail driver is creeping toward 50, a high number for an industry average, Flatow adds.

Byron Breda, the safety training and recruitment coordinator for the Propane Gas Association of New England (PGANE), has also noticed this developing trend.

“The average bobtail driver is aging and their ability to deliver in cold, tough environments slows down,” Breda says. “There’s truly a worker shortage out there, and it’s sad.”

With the majority of bobtail drivers getting older and nearing retirement comes a need to recruit younger drivers to fill the vacancies.

One avenue Breda, Flatow and Stephenson suggest taking is to recruit military veterans to drive bobtails. Flatow says he’s talked with other industries that have used veterans in recent years to fill employment gaps.

“They’re often already looking for jobs, they’re dedicated workers and some are even trained in the military on how to transport big vehicles,” Flatow says. “It seems a natural switch for them.”

ATA also identified veterans as a prime group to recruit to fill gaps in driving jobs.

“[Veterans] make great employees,” Stephenson says. “There’s a bit of a military slowdown in America today, and these guys need jobs.”

Recruiting veterans

Photo: Revere Gas

Photo: Revere Gas

Some propane retailers have already embraced the strategy of recruiting and hiring military veterans as drivers and technicians. Flynn Propane, based in Towanda, Pa., has considered hiring veterans since the business launched five years ago.

In 2014, the company hired Scott Brown, who served in the U.S. Air Force, to begin driving some time after he returned home from his military services. Brown says the decision to go from working in the military to the propane industry was a simple switch because one of his main duties in the military included fueling aircraft.

“Handling fuel in the military had a lot higher safety precautions than in the civilian world, so it was an easy transition,” Brown says.

Senior Master Sergeant Scott J. Carter, Brown’s former military supervisor, also transitioned to Flynn Propane. Brown says he and Carter were hired around the same time and experienced driver training together.

Brown and his supervisor are two of seven military veterans who work for Flynn Propane.

Brown still serves in the U.S. Air Force National Guard, so he occasionally needs to leave work to perform military responsibilities. The company is flexible with Brown and others in this type of situation, according to Kim Morgan, Flynn Propane’s human resources director.

“It’s nice working for a company that really understands military background and lets me do this,” Brown says.

Jay Hilliard, Revere Gas’ safety and operations director, says the Hartfield, Va., company has also made an effort to recruit veterans to its team. The company partners with the locally based Virginia Veterans Values program to search for qualified drivers and technicians, he says. Today, veterans make up about 10 percent of Revere Gas’ 85-person team.

The industry should also seek avenues besides military veterans to recruit new drivers and technicians, Hilliard adds.

“You can find good qualified people if you look outside the norm,” he says. “You have to be more creative if you want to find qualified people.”

Companies seeking better drivers should prioritize finding better job candidates. Hilliard advises companies to seek potential candidates before a need to fill a job position arises and screen any potential job candidate for the right skillset and personality.

“Waiting until it’s too late to find a driver isn’t a great approach,” he says. “You need time to train people.”

Training to retaining

Photo: Revere Gas

Photo: Revere Gas

Training comes after a company hires a military veteran as a driver.

But one benefit to hiring veterans is that some already have commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs), Hilliard says. A handful even have hazmat endorsements already.

“The learning curve is shorter for military veterans sometimes,” he says. “Especially when they’ve had experience with transporting hazardous materials.”

Breda of PGANE sees the logic in finding potential job candidates who already have their CDL or hazmat endorsements. A company may also benefit from hiring veterans without these certifications, but it needs to be ready to invest time and money toward training them to boost retention rates, he adds.

“It’s a gamble hiring someone without a CDL or hazmat endorsements,” Breda says. “When a company takes on a bobtail driver, they have to sink money into them. Like anything, it’s an investment. I know one company that invested thousands to train a couple military veterans to be drivers, but eventually the drivers left the industry to do police work.”

Whenever a propane retailer takes on new drivers, Hilliard says, it’s important to give them the same training – hazmat credentials or not.

“We think you need to verify these guys know how we want the job done,” he says. “A person might be qualified for the task already, but each company has their own set of standards for employees. It gives us more consistency with our employees.”

Morgan of Flynn Propane says her company pays potential employees to go through CDL and hazmat training. The driver training program at Flynn Propane lasts three weeks. This process has helped the company get a well-rounded group of drivers, she adds.

“Once a driver is ready to start driving, we team them with our most senior driver to ride with them to learn things on the road,” she says.

Strong training programs could be key to retaining drivers and technicians in the industry, Hilliard adds, because there are added benefits to cross training employees. They can be useful in different departments.

Morgan agrees there are benefits to cross training a team.

“We train new employees to learn about every facet of the company,” she says. “That way, if we need someone in downtime, they’re trained to do other things. This has made the driver shortage not as much of an issue for us with a cross-trained team.”

Outside the box

Jay Hilliard of Revere Gas suggests propane retailers dedicate time toward drawing in more committed, skilled drivers and technicians to their teams.

“The simple answer to the problem is retailers need to make time for this and make it a higher priority,” he says.
With recruiting people to the industry, Byron Breda of the Propane Gas Association of New England says propane retailers need to sell potential candidates on the industry.

“Promise them it’s more than a seasonal job,” he says. “Assure them job security. Once you hire a person, make them feel like part of the team.”

While military veterans and related associations helping veterans find jobs is one avenue to recruit new drivers and technicians to the industry, there are several other places retailers can look:

  • Job fairs
  • Community colleges
  • Vocational schools

Navy veteran recalls his start in propane

“I had a commercial license with hazmat endorsements and didn’t know what I wanted to be when I came back eight years ago. I tried six months at one driving job, six months at another and then two years on yet another. Fortunately, I heard about Revere Gas when there was an opening and I got the job. Already having a CDL with hazmat endorsements made the transition easy for me. [Revere Gas] had to tolerate my ignorance of the propane industry when I started. They had me with one of their drivers at first, making sure I knew how not to clip stop signs or drive up on curbs. After 90 days of training, they put me to work on my own. With time, I realized I started my second career [after the military] as a bobtail driver.”

– Jerry Roquemore, Revere Gas bobtail driver

FMCSA grants encourage military veteran driver training

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) awarded $2.3 million in grants to allow schools to train more military veterans to drive commercially.

FMCSA nearly doubled the amount it funded for this grant this year compared to 2014. The awards went to 13 technical and community colleges in California, Georgia, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. The colleges and schools will use the grants to start or expand commercial driver training programs and increase scholarship opportunities.

FMCSA distributed the award to the following schools:

  • Alamo Colleges and St. Phillip’s College in San Antonio: $196,680
  • Cecil College in North East, Md.: $101,825
  • Central Georgia Technical College in Macon, Ga.: $146,771
  • Central Technical Center in Drumright, Okla.: $200,000
  • Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland: $195,040
  • Erie 2 Chautauqua Cattaraugus BOCES in Angola, N.Y.: $105,201
  • Lancaster County Career & Technology Center in Willow Street, Pa.: $194,811
  • North Carolina Department of Transportation in Raleigh, N.C.: $200,000
  • Northampton County Area Community College in Bethlehem, Pa.: $134,400
  • Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College in Orangeburg, S.C.: $197,399
  • The Sage Corp. in Camp Hill, Pa.: $198,504
  • Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Va.: $199,879
  • West Hills Community College District in Coalinga, Calif.: $199,460

About the Author:

Megan Smalley was an associate editor at LP Gas magazine.

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