Technology to bridge recruitment and retention?
It’s at least part of the solution according to presenters at the ALK Transportation Technology Summit

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

The highway system is falling apart, but everybody loves drivers.

Those were the two big messages from the 2014 ALK Transportation Technology Summit in May.

Former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, the biggest name at the event, warned the 250 carrier execs and trucking technology vendors at a luxury hotel in Princeton, N.J., that the U.S. highway system, once the envy of the world, was now a “laughingstock” because Congress has been unwilling to address highway funding.

Congestion will get worse, said LaHood, a Republican, unless Congress decides to replenish the Federal Highway Trust Fund. He blamed elected representatives “with no vision who only say no.” LaHood did not mention the Tea Party, but he did refer to “libertarians who don’t believe in government.”

“America,” he said, “is one big pothole.” That got a laugh, but the big gray-haired man with the bushy black eyebrows wasn’t kidding around.

In the Q&A, I asked if he had supported the ELD mandate and speed limiters on trucks, but for reasons I still don’t fully understand, the former cabinet secretary didn’t like the question. One editor said he must have thought I was trying to provoke him.

“Why would you ask that?” he responded.

“Because our readers expect me to,” I said.

“Well, tell them I dodged the question.”

And so you have been told.

There isn’t much trucking technology can do about congestion, but most of the people at this event were definitely working on driver recruitment and, even more, on driver retention. Drivers were the underlying theme of the event.

Richie Henderson, senior vice president, technology and administration for J.B. Hunt, set the tone with his keynote. J.B. Hunt, he said, is about “enriching our employees’ lives.” Foremost among those employees no doubt are drivers. I had the feeling that if a driver were in the room, he or she would be fighting off hugs from fleet execs.

So what exactly is the ALK (See article on Page 66) Summit?

Most major trucking technology companies host annual customer get-togethers they call user groups. A tech company will invite customers to spend a day or two at a nice hotel somewhere, maybe including a day of golf – at their employer’s expense, of course. The host will put on workshops and presentations to demonstrate upgrades, give tips, and provide individual help with their technology. The host also takes the opportunity to sell more stuff.

As trucking tech expanded over the past 20 years, tech companies grew and so did their roster of customers. Once-modest user groups became large events, often with big name speakers – like Ray LaHood.

Though it is similar in most respects, ALK calls its annual event a summit, not a user group. All but one of the presentations were by people from companies other than ALK. They’re all supposed to provide insight into what’s happening in the field, and some do. Others deliver no more than sales demos. Nevertheless, it’s one of the industry’s major recurring tech events. This was their 10th annual.

There were some notable insights at this year’s ALK Summit. 

First, of course, everybody wants to recruit drivers, make them happy in the cab, make them feel part of the family, and keep them in the loop (whatever that loop might be). Carriers are asking their tech people to make these things happen, mainly because the cost of replacing a truckload driver is now estimated to be about $5,700, and that estimate is low. More than one speaker cited instances in which drivers left for jobs in the burgeoning shale oil industry, most notably in South Dakota.

Dan Murray of the ATA’s American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), said that recruitment and retention have become separate issues. The bottom line: Current drivers must be retained. Escape is not an option.

So how do they plan to keep current drivers?

Only Henderson of J.B. Hunt addressed the issue head-on. Pay, he said, needed to rise. The last “meaningful increase” in driver pay was seven years ago, he pointed out, just before the economic meltdown. The good news: Driver pay reportedly increased 5.8 percent in the first quarter of 2014, a good start.

Henderson said that driver turnover would probably increase along with the economy this year. At the largest carriers, turnover was “pretty low” at 85 percent. Hunt, which employs 13,000 drivers across its divisions, expects to hire 11,000 drivers this year, he said. Sure enough, that amounts to 85 percent.

But 85 percent is considered “pretty low”?

Don’t forget, Henderson noted, that turnover before the meltdown had reached 120 percent. Funny, I could have sworn it was 130 percent.

Henderson did not announce a pay increase at J.B. Hunt. This was a technology conference, after all. But he did say that technology – “what we put in their hands” – played an important part in attracting and keeping drivers.

According to Ken Kennedy of A&S Kinard, an East Coast carrier with 500 power units and average hauls of 250 miles, drivers at recruiting events frequently ask about in-cab technology.

“Back in 2008 they would ask, what kind of tractors do you have?” Kennedy said. “Now they ask, what are you running in the cab?”

Some are looking for navigation, he said, often because they’re concerned about CSA and want to avoid any off-route incidents that might raise their scores.

Navigation is important for another reason.

“We have drivers who can’t read maps,” Kennedy said.

Of course, truck-specific, in-cab navigation can be a very helpful tool, especially if you’re always skeptical of what it tells you and stay conscious of where you’re going. In-cab video is something else, and there was a lot about that at the ALK Summit.

Two different vendors offered presentations on this topic. One company was called SmartDrive Systems, the other DriveCam. Both provide windshield cams that look out at the road and in on the driver. Both are wirelessly connected through the truck’s communication system.

A system like this is always on, which probably sounds worse than it really is. That’s because while the camera is always recording, it doesn’t send anything without a trigger of some sort – something like hard braking, swerving or a crash. Then the system saves video of, say, 10 seconds before the trigger and a few seconds afterward and sends it off to the technology company.

There the video is instantly analyzed by software to determine whether the event was significant or not. If you just hit a pothole, for example, the video is simply filed away. If you drove off a cliff, it is forwarded to the carrier for action.

That means that for all those hours behind the wheel while the camera is on, no one ever sees what it records. It simply records until memory is full, then it records over what was there before. No one sees you picking your nose or lip-syncing Taylor Swift – unless that happens to be what you’re doing when the system is triggered.

“We’ve seen unauthorized passengers and even unauthorized drivers recorded within that 10 seconds,” said Angie Buchanan of Melton Truck Lines.

On one occasion in the aftermath of an accident, she said, they even witnessed domestic violence, “a driver team beating the stuffing out of each other in the truck cab.” Melton uses the DriveCam system.

Of course, all of the presenters were enthusiastic about in-cab video, and I can understand a camera facing the road. But an inward-facing camera, especially one that is always on, reporting or not, is a personal intrusion in what for many drivers is their living space. One company said no drivers had resigned over the cameras. The other said that only two had left. Both took that to mean drivers were fine with prying cameras. I have to wonder if that’s really the case.

There were a couple of other statements at the event that raised flags. Both were about hours of service and, more specifically, about the number of hours a driver puts in behind the wheel compared to the hours legally left to drive. In the age of ELDs and wireless communication, the carrier is often aware of both in real time and – as we all know – usually wants drivers to use all available hours.

Dan Murray of ATRI pointed out the truck parking problem, which is getting more acute. The new HOS rules essentially cut down on overnight driving, he explained, making overnight parking spaces even harder to find. Because of the need to anticipate parking, drivers were prone to “shut down earlier in the day rather than later.” As a result, Murray said, trip lengths and overall mileage per year is down.

No one is necessarily happy with that, but I was concerned to know the subject was on Murray’s radar screen. Despite his constant efforts to dissociate the ATRI that he works for directly from its ATA parent, Dan Murray very much represents ATA interests and is unlikely to come up with research or possible solutions that relieve rather than increase management pressure on drivers.

Similarly, the chief information officer for a well-known truckload carrier said on the same subject that his technology department was going to take a “deeper dive into available hours.”

What that might actually mean is unclear. It’s an issue worth watching closely whenever transportation techs gather. LL