As published on Medium.com
This week, businesses across the country celebrate National Truck Driver Appreciation Week. And this year, the annual recognition carries special significance, as professional truck drivers are more essential to the sustainability of the American economy than at any other point in history.
Prior to COVID-19, professional truck drivers were responsible for moving 70 percent of all goods in the U.S. However, beginning in 2020, as the effects of the pandemic began to wreak havoc on supply chains, a labor shortage emerged, inflation began its unprecedented rise, and more was asked of truck drivers than ever before. In fact, it is estimated that there will be a driver shortage of nearly 200,000 by the end of 2022.
While pay has increased, compensation remained the 2nd-highest issue in the industry, as inflation decreased the effects of raises, increased demand led to more truck breakdowns, and the labor shortage made long maintenance turnaround times even longer. Further, with more time on the road, slightly higher raises simply haven’t cut it, as time at home and off the road has continued to decrease.
With today’s unique mix of variables, the standard model of rewarding drivers with pay raises or one-time bonuses isn’t sustainable. The future is murky, and this strategy could backfire. For instance, many of the economic variables listed above have also slowed consumer demand due to higher prices and eroded companies’ bottom lines due to rising fuel costs.
If demand falls off a cliff and businesses scale back operations, where does that leave drivers? Making more money in the short-term doesn’t go very far in guaranteeing continued work or elevated pay. This begs the question — are current strategies delivering effective “appreciation,” or are they temporary bandages that neglect to consider the long-term outlook for truck drivers?
As with most things, the truth usually falls somewhere in the middle. It is true that immediate changes were necessary, and continue to be necessary, in response to sudden, unprecedented economic upheaval. However, I also believe that such unique economic times call for more creative measures. Companies must rewrite their traditional playbooks and look for new ways to show appreciation.
Too often, drivers feel out of the loop and alone — not part of the larger operation of the company or their specific team. In fact, just behind compensation, communication is cited as the 3rd-largest issue for truck drivers today. Most major transportation and logistics companies have no centralized recognition or safety program. Further, managers aren’t given the tools to recognize or reward drivers on an individual level.
With a background in the incentives and recognition industry, I see too many companies fail their fleets by instituting pass-fail, generic benchmarks that discourage safety reporting, do nothing to improve employee retention, and achieve negligible returns on efficiency benchmarks. The more effective model, in my experience, is a comprehensive, inclusive strategy tied directly to a company’s mission and culture. All managers are given the same tools but allowed the autonomy to recognize desired behaviors on an individual and team basis — the best of both worlds.
Specifically, employee referral incentives would go a long way in improving the driver shortage and alleviating the burden on current drivers. Manager-to-driver as well as peer-to-peer safe driving awards would keep teams engaged and introduce appreciation at multiple levels. Moving from miles- and hours-based or delivery-completion benchmarks to accurate reporting and safe-driving incentives would eliminate a drivers’ inclination to just “get a job done no matter what.” This would increase driver safety and reduce accident and maintenance costs.
While these are just a few of the ways to change how we think of and express appreciation for professional truck drivers in today’s environment, the fact remains that companies must change their compensation and recognition structures on a fundamental level. If the events of the past few years have taught us anything, it is that transportation will always be central to the economy. Moving forward, professional driver appreciation must prioritize the long-term and be better suited to evolve with changing needs and circumstances.