2023 is well underway, and it’s no big secret that North America is in the throes of an economic downturn. The effects will probably be relatively mild in the trucking industry, but we’re far from immune. Inflation is way up, trucks and trailers cost double what they did in recent memory, and freight levels are far more uncertain than they were throughout the pandemic.
Like many carriers, you may be wondering if it’s time to exit underperforming truck drivers from your team to cut costs and weather the storm. But when you look at things over the long haul, is this really the right move?
I certainly don’t believe it is. Here’s why.
The argument for standing pat
The tendency in times like these may be to “cull the herd” by cutting loose lower performing or less experienced truck drivers. But in my humble opinion, that’s short-sighted. Even in a downturn, there’s opportunity for hugely successful business outcomes. Focusing on retention and culture-building is one of those opportunities.
A strong, positive company culture is hard to create but easy to destroy, and choosing to say goodbye to drivers will have an immediate negative impact. That can quickly spread to your star drivers – the ones you’d hate to lose – causing the kind of attrition you simply can’t afford.
Moreover, letting go of drivers is simply bad for business, because they remain mighty difficult to hire. You’d hate to end up in a place where you’ve cut drivers, only to find yourself short of drivers soon thereafter. So it’s best not to be the cause of your own torment.
Seizing the opportunity
Instead of downsizing your team, consider seizing the opportunity afforded by a slowdown to turn underperforming drivers into high-performing ones. Making an investment in coaching during slower times will pay huge dividends when things ramp back up, which isn’t too far in the future by most estimates.
By investing time this way, you’ll foster loyalty and build a highly engaged workforce. Plus, it’ll speak volumes to your company culture. You’ll be the carrier that values its people and stands behind them in tough times. A people-building culture like that will make your company resilient, maximizing driver retention in the long run.
That applies to your star drivers as well as ones who may be struggling. Continuously coaching them up on the nuances will build loyalty and retention with the people you need to retain most.
When the rest of the industry is clamping down and shrinking their workforces, you’ll be making strides in culture and retention. There’s no better time than a recession to stand out in this regard.
Taking this approach will keep your seats filled and solidify your culture, which will help your company thrive both during and after the downturn.
It goes beyond drivers
Obviously, you don’t just want a great “on-the-road” culture, but one that extends throughout your organization. Be sure to take the above approach with all of your teams. Safety, recruiting, maintenance, office staff… everyone.
Coaching up your recruiters, for example, is a huge opportunity. It will be positive for them as individuals, and also positive for the rest of the team, laying a great foundation for everybody coming through your doors. These folks are every incoming employee’s first human touchpoint with your brand, so it’s vital make sure they deliver on a positive and engaging culture at all times.
Recruiters should be part hunter and part nurturer, presenting themselves as relatable, understanding, and kind in everything they do. The recruiter’s role isn’t just to sell drivers on the job, but to continuously convey the company’s’ values and willingness to engage with drivers and other staff to ensure they’re empowered to do their best work and live their best lives.
5 tips for creating a culture of learning and retention:
- Set yearly goals around retention and culture. Choose goals that are measurable and attainable, and hold yourself accountable to meeting them.
- Create workshops and learning opportunities for every level of driver experience and performance, from rookies to rock stars. Make sure they all participate. An online learning management system (LMS) can be a big help.
- Ensure every employee in every department is behind the company culture and convey it to other departments and drivers they encounter.
- Coach up your recruiters to nurture as well as they hunt.
- Ask for feedback from drivers and other staff in order to drive constant improvement.
Tough times don’t last, but if you’re brave enough to face them head-on, it’ll drive sustainable business success.
Dirk Kupar is Cofounder and President of TruckRight, KAT Media, and Kupar Professional Services. He’s been in the transportation industry for almost 40 years, including 12 years as a multi-truck owner operator, and 25 years at the helm of an international truck driver leasing business.