Trucking Outfit Shifts Hiring Into Overdrive

By Michelle Rafter

Apr. 1, 2005

In trucking, a full crew of drivers is as critical to keeping rigs on the road making money as full tanks of diesel.

    But getting a new driver behind the wheel isn’t easy. Prospects have to pass government physical and drug tests, a road test and, in some areas, state and county criminal checks. After drivers have been cleared, they need to learn how to operate in-cab computers and other equipment and ride along with an experienced driver to learn their route.

    From beginning to end, the process can take a month. That’s a long time to be short-handed if there’s no ready pool of candidates to draw from should someone give notice unexpectedly.

    For all those reasons, it didn’t surprise John Pryor when three years ago executives at Southeastern Freight Lines made a New Year’s resolution to cut hiring time for drivers. On top of that, they wanted the drivers they hired to be better at their jobs–better suited to the work, stay longer on the job, have fewer accidents, and like what they do.

    Carrying out that resolution fell to Pryor, vice president of human resources and safety for Southeastern, a privately held $565.1 million company based in Lexington, South Carolina. Southeastern is what’s known as a less-than-truckload commercial carrier, consolidating freight from multiple customers onto one truck for delivery to a nearby city. Southeastern delivers to a 12-state area in the southeastern United States using 5,000 drivers and freight handlers operating from a network of local and regional service centers.

    Truck drivers and sales clerks don’t have much in common. But when Pryor started looking for a fix, sales clerks became his inspiration. He made the connection reading a magazine article about retailers using software to improve the quality and longevity of employees they hired. He called the vendor from the story, Unicru.

    Unicru, a vendor of recruiting and assessment software, wasn’t looking for the business. At the time, the Beaverton, Oregon, company was working exclusively with department stores, grocery chains and other retailers. It took the better part of a year for the companies to decide to work together and then for Unicru to create an application and assessments suited to the trucking business. Southeastern tested the hiring system in 10 service centers in fall 2003 before rolling it out companywide in early 2004.

    So far, so good. Using Unicru’s recruiting technology,background checks that once took three to five days now take a day or less. Based on such improvements, the period between when someone applies and their first day on the job has dropped by 40 percent, according to the company’s human resources staff.

    The job application Unicru created for Southeastern is helping the company pick higher-quality drivers. The job application includes an assessment that identifies personality traits associated with dependability that Southeastern is using to pick out the most likely job candidates. “Time’s going to tell, but our initial reaction is that the quality of hires is better” because of the assessment, says Bryon Hamrick, Southeastern’s human resources director, in a video testimonial produced by Unicru.

    As part of automating hiring, Southeastern did away with paper applications entirely and put applications on its corporate Web site. Online access made it so much easier to apply for a job that Southeastern received six times the number of applications in 2004–about 39,000—than it used to get in a year. “Our heaviest application day is Sunday. That wouldn’t have been available before because (our offices) aren’t open on Sunday,” Hamrick says in the video testimonial. Of applications processed through the new recruiting technology, Southeastern hired 392 drivers and 765 freight handlers, Pryor says.

    Integrating the recruiting technology had the unintended consequence of helping Southeastern track how well or poorly regional hiring managers were doing at keeping jobs filled. Last year, one regional hiring manager complained he couldn’t get anyone hired, but when the corporate human resources staff checked the application reports Unicru generates they discovered it was the manager who had been slacking off: He had gotten plenty of applications but hadn’t done anything with them for weeks. “That happened once, and it’s never come up again because they’ve learned we can tell what’s happening everywhere,” Pryor says.

    Pryor has mixed feelings about sharing his success with the world. “This gives us a competitive advantage,” he says. “One side of me says keep this a secret, but the other says our industry needs to catch up with others. We need technology like this.”

    Jason Shaw, a University of Kentucky professor who has studied the trucking industry, agrees that by relying on online applications and using assessments, Southeastern Freight Lines is blazing new trails. The fact that Southeastern is receiving so many job applications in the middle of atrucking industry labor shortage speaks to its success, Shaw says. “Any move away from subjectivity in the recruitment and selection process is likely to be more effective,” he says. “Unstructured interviews, which scads of organizations continue to use, are among the worst predictors of job performance.”

    At Southeastern, Pryor’s next goal is to improve training. In late 2003, he brought organizational development and training manager Paul Riddle on staff to direct the company’s college recruiting and Web-based learning. As part of its training effort, Southeastern is recruiting at four historically minority colleges with strong transportation and logistics majors, including Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia, and Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. For Web-based training, Southeastern recently purchased Microsoft Office Live Meeting and will use it to record training sessions that can be broadcast company wide.

    This time, though, Pryor’s not expecting quick results. Measuring training “is a little harder than measuring turnover and productivity,” Pryor says. “It’ll take us at least five years.”

Michelle Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor.

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