Respect At Work Makes Employees Keep on Trucking

Trucking is tough. Truckers put in an average of 70 hours a week, are underpaid, making about the same wage as they did in 1985, and are subject to disrespect, racism and even hostility as they deliver their goods.

The working conditions are reflected in the lofty turnover rate in the industry: an average of 135 per cent.

So how has one Vancouver-area trucking company managed to keep its turnover rate at a fraction of that figure?

Coastal Pacific Xpress, a Surrey, B.C. based long-haul trucking company specializing in temperature-controlled and just-in-time overnight deliveries, has a reputation for attracting and retaining talent. The company boasts an annual turnover rate of a mere 21 per cent a year.

CPX didn’t produce those low turnover figures by accident. It’s managed to attract and keep drivers – and staff in general – by turning the traditional “customer first” philosophy on its head.

Jim Mickey, CPX’s President and General Partner, said his company retains quality employees by putting staff first, customers second and profits third.

“Some of our customers are a bit surprised by the idea at first, but are tickled pink by the results,” Mickey said in an interview. “Customers get their deliveries on time and at a competitive price. We have no unhappy customers here.”

By putting truckers first, Mickey has bucked a trend in an industry that he says tends to view truckers as dehumanized cogs-in-a-wheel, whom employers tell to “just shut up and drive.”

Mickey, a former trucker himself, said there are three ways that CPX encourages truckers (many of whom are owner- operators) to stay:

1. Flexible Rules
A long-haul trucker’s working conditions are onerous – long hours driving, sleeping in a truck’s berth instead of a comfortable bed, being away from home and family for days at a time, and spending tedious hours waiting at border crossings, weigh stations and loading bays.

Mickey believes in giving truckers control over their working conditions whenever possible. He encourages truckers to identify what they want. For example, some may want to do three-day trips within Canada only. Others like longer hauls to the US. Some would rather carry electronic goods than food.

Mickey tries to accommodate them all. “We get an order from a customer and ask, ‘Who likes this kind of job the most?’ and then we give it to that driver. This creates a reservoir of goodwill because eight out of 10 times we can give the drivers what they like.”

For example, soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11th, 2001, Mickey discovered that some of the Indo-Canadian drivers were concerned about trips scheduled to New York City or Georgia. “Some of the guys were terrified (about the possibility of an intolerant racial climate in the U.S. at the time) and we didn’t send them if they were scared,” said Mickey.

2. Combating Low Wages
Mickey concedes there is little the company can do about low wages due to the industry’s tight profit margins. But companies must come up with ways to help truckers boost their bottom lines by reducing costs, paying drivers when they are forced to wait (e.g., at borders) and keeping people driving year round in a sometimes seasonal industry. Other tactics include helping drivers log more miles (and therefore, more money, since they’re paid by the mile travelled) by reducing time spent loading and unloading.

The company offers truckers innovative programs, such as financial planning and business education to help them run their owner-operator businesses successfully. It negotiates with tire suppliers and truck companies to ensure that truckers get the best deal on new trucks (trucks are replaced every three to four years at $100,000 per truck). The company pays drivers flat rates when they wait at the border, delivery yards or while trucks are being loaded.

3. Ensuring Respect
One problem that can drive truckers out of the business is chronic disrespect from some customers. According to Mickey, trucking used to be a great way to make a middle class living. “It was considered a semi-skilled career that provided a one-wage earner income, on which a family could survive.”

No longer. “You don’t hear of many teenagers these days dreaming of being a truck driver.”

Whenever possible he goes to bat for truckers who are being treated poorly. In one case, a customer kept a driver waiting too long in a field. The company called the customer and asked the client to quickly help unload the truck. Wasting a trucker’s time is one of the strongest examples of disrespect, since waiting costs the trucker.

Giving credit to truckers who have served for five and 10 years as well as recognizing people’s effort with a bonus are ways the company engenders respect for drivers. In fact, CPX recently paid out a total of over $400,000 in bonuses to staff, company drivers and owner operators. The organization says it will continue this bonus program annually as long as the company is profitable. The company terminates personnel who engage in racist behaviour, provides staff with access to counseling and takes driver feedback seriously.

New drivers are offered an opportunity to give the company feedback about its practices and a formal employee engagement survey is conducted to ensure that the company is living up to its principles.

Retaining valued employees is an issue for every business, and finding ways to encourage people to stay requires ingenuity. Bucking trends and conventional wisdom seems to be the ticket when it comes to keeping truckers happy and on-the-job for the long term.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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