The Right Stuff

If there is anything in the trucking industry that has only become more valuable with time, it’s qualified drivers. Industry leaders re-affirmed the need for experienced drivers at this year’s Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky. In anticipation of a new rule on entry-level driver training standards mandated by the highway bill MAP-21, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration held a public listening session during which some of the industry’s most experienced professionals shared their opinions about the form the new rule should take. Although ideas on the new rule varied, there was one area in which nearly all agreed – a strong focus on training is going to be a key to survival for any company in the trucking industry.

Gone are the days when a trucking company could successfully recruit experienced drivers to replace veterans within their organizations. Today, experienced drivers are a rare commodity, and the competition among employers to gain and/or keep that experience has never been tougher. For trucking companies to survive in this environment, experience has to be built from the ground up, and that means developing and executing a successful internal training program. Although doing so can be challenging, there are several things trucking firms can keep in mind when starting the process to make it both easier and more successful.

San Bernstine directs the automotive segment of consulting firm Kepner-Tregoe’s operational excellence practice in North America, and in that capacity, he has helped multiple firms in the transportation sector develop and improve their operations. His more than 28 years of experience in the field includes helping transportation companies establish successful training programs, and he says no good training program can be developed without a solid foundation of philosophy and a complete buy-in from every level of the company from the front office on down.

Fully Understood

Before any training program is developed, Bernstine says, a trucking company needs to first understand what they want to accomplish with the training program. He advises that companies begin by making sure the company’s leadership agrees on what a training program should be teaching employees. “Lots of times, in my experience, there’s a major disconnect between a training program and what the real issues are,” he says.

Companies looking to establish a successful training program need to begin with a comprehensive diagnostic process that examines their business issues, the goals the company hopes to accomplish and which metrics need to be tracked in pursuit of those goals.

Bernstine says that although many clients know they need some kind of training program in place, most of them come at it from the wrong perspective. “A lot of people out there, with all due respect, are looking for a silver bullet for a training program,” he says, adding that sometimes a company will assume that a training program can alleviate all of the problems it has, when in fact it can’t solve everything.

How and Why

A good training program, according to Bernstine, is one that focuses on teaching employees problem-solving skills that align with the company’s internal goals. “One of the things that you want to do is, you want to determine what’s the culture of the organization and what’s the best vehicle to deliver the services,” he says.

Although it’s important for trucking companies to teach employees what they need to do out on the road, Bernstine says teaching them when to do those things can be just as essential. Sometimes, employees can have all the knowledge they need, but are confused as to when those behaviors are to be triggered. Too many companies give employees the tools they need to be successful in their training programs but fail when it comes to making them aware of when to put those tools into play.

The other vital area in which many companies falter when establishing a training program is not developing an internal culture that encourages employees to think about their training on a regular basis. Bernstine says the responsibility for ensuring all levels of the company are aligned with the training program rests on management. If the upper levels of the company are not encouraging everyone underneath them to internalize their training, he says, then the program simply can’t be effective. “People pretty much do what they’re encouraged to do,” he says.

Establishing consistent follow-up after an employee finishes the training program also goes a long way to developing a successful program, according to Bernstine. Whether that follow-up takes the form of face-to-face contact or virtual interaction, providing additional feedback and/or support ensures that employees understand the principles of the training program and know how and when to use it in their daily operations.

Strong Foundation

Even though training is more important than ever for companies in the trucking industry, Bernstine says companies need to be careful that they don’t assume simply having a training program is going to be the answer for improving their operations. “Training for training’s sake is a bit dangerous,” he says, adding that companies need to take into consideration how much time training programs take away from employees. If employees are being taken off the job to undergo training that is not aligned with the company’s goals or not fully supported by the internal culture, he says, it can do more harm than good.

If trucking companies bear these foundational aspects in mind, Bernstine says, they can work on developing successful training programs that not only teach employees what to do, but also why they should do it.