Meeting the recruiting challenge
Jan 1, 2007 12:00 PM
Finding qualified drivers remains a challenge for all transportation operators. Unlike drivers for truckload carriers, drivers in food distribution, particularly foodservice distribution, face a wide array of job demands. Not only must foodservice drivers have the professional skill to operate a heavy vehicle in congested surroundings, they must meet the physical demands of delivering small, often heavy or unwieldy, loads at multiple stops on a daily basis. In addition to coping with the vehicle, traffic, and physical delivery, foodservice drivers must handle sales responsibility, accounting issues, and customer service.
Once a distributor finds a qualified driver, the next challenge is providing the training and work environment that makes retention possible, says Dave Ponstein, director of transportation for Gordon Food Service in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gordon Food Service has a history going back 100 years and is the largest privately held foodservice company in North America. It provides service throughout Canada from nine distribution centers ranging from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Bay Roberts, Newfoundland, and from Michigan to Florida in the US with seven distribution centers with locations spread from the headquarters in Grand Rapids all the way to Miami.
In addition to traffic and demanding customers, foodservice drivers must learn to use highly specialized equipment. At Gordon, this includes 28-ft, multi-compartment trailers with side doors, a ramp under the rear door, and a refrigeration unit with multiple controls. All doors have plastic strip curtains. “My personal favorite among the equipment is the personal unloading device, otherwise known as a hand truck,” Ponstein says. “Luckily, the personal unloading device has been improved over the years since I drove a route. Now hand trucks come equipped with hand brakes and auxiliary wheels to make climbing stairs easier.”
Six recruiting segments
The task of recruiting and retaining good foodservice drivers divides into six segments, Ponstein says. The first step involves finding an appropriate number of quality applicants. Secondly, foodservice companies must hire the proper workers from that pool of applicants. Once hired, new drivers need training; they may have worked in foodservice before, but they need training for the exact job they will be asked to do. The fourth part of finding good drivers is retaining those that meet company standards. The fifth and sixth steps in dealing with drivers involve providing the incentives that will aid retention and making sure the compensation package fits the job requirements, he says.
Foodservice companies use many of the same recruiting tools that other businesses use. Like many companies, Gordon Food Service uses newspaper classified ads to find applicants. However, newspaper ads have proved less than successful at recruiting drivers. They are expensive and often produce few applicants, Ponstein says.
Young workers in particular do not look for jobs in the newspaper. They are much more likely to search the Internet for job openings. Gordon Food Service uses a web site known as fullfleet.com and gets a good number of applications. Internet postings serve two purposes, Ponstein says. First potential drivers can search for available jobs. Secondly, drivers who call the human resources department about jobs can be directed to a web site where they can fill out an electronic application. “The big attraction to electronic applications is that we can have them the same day the call comes in,” he says.
Radio ads show success
Placing help-wanted ads on radio has been one of the more successful recruiting tools Gordon Food Service has used recently, Ponstein says. The great thing about radio is that it allows for specific targeting at a reasonable price. Radio works, because most of the good truck drivers already have jobs. Radio allows recruiting to take place while the target audience is at work, he says.
Although recruiting from outside the company is often necessary and works well in some instances, the favorite way to find drivers at Gordon Food Service is internal referrals, Ponstein says. “We want more drivers just like the best drivers we already have,” he says. “Maybe we can't clone our best drivers, but the next best possibility is getting those good drivers to bring their best friends to work alongside them. We pay our drivers a bonus up to $500 for bringing in new drivers, because these internal referrals are the sort of people we want and they have the highest retention rate.”
In addition, Gordon Food Service has had some success with job fairs. The company also finds some drivers working in the warehouse. Order selectors are already trained in some aspects of the product handling required by a delivery job. In addition, the company has a good retention rate for drivers moving from the warehouse to transportation. However, moving a worker from warehousing to transportation creates a job opening at the same time it fills one. “We fill the warehouse slot before moving the driver applicant,” Ponstein says. “In addition, warehouse workers who want to drive must have passed the written portion of the CDL test before they can begin training as a driver.
“Good order selectors already know how to work. They know the product, and they adapt pretty well to the different job. The biggest problem seems to be handling the vehicle in congested delivery areas. Some of them have more problems than others with bumping into things. We have assistant transportation managers who are responsible for making all our drivers better. We work with all our drivers, but we don't sugarcoat the requirements. Two accidents in a six-month period cause a worker to lose driving privileges.”
Choosing the right applicant
Once the recruiting process is underway and applications have been received, the time comes to decide whom to hire, Ponstein says. This involves a number of decisions, many made before interviews begin. Distributors are looking for quality drivers, and they need to decide what their quality criteria are before they begin talking to applicants. “At Gordon Food Service, we are unwilling to hire a warm body just because that applicant has a CDL,” he says. “Simply hiring someone with a valid license can be a formula for disaster.”
Specifically, Gordon Food Service looks for four things in a driver who is otherwise qualified to operate a vehicle, Ponstein says. The first level of qualification depends on customer service skills. The interview includes a number of questions to assess attitudes about customer service. One thing that makes GFS successful is the care its drivers have for customers. “Drivers understand that their job is to make the customer happy,” he says. “Happy customers buy more product resulting in fewer stops on a truck while the driver makes more money at the same time.”
Gordon Food Service wants to hire people who take pride in their work, Ponstein says. “We want people who take ownership of their work,” he says.
In addition, GFS wants drivers who are safety-minded. That involves more than simple operation of the vehicle. The company wants workers who do the whole job safely, particularly handling deliveries in a safe manner. “We want drivers who can deliver 800 cartons a day and go home with their backs intact so that they can enjoy the rest of life,” Ponstein says. “Work is not their only life; we want drivers to have a life away from work.”
Do better tomorrow
The fourth thing Gordon Food Service looks for from applicants is a commitment to do a better job tomorrow than today, Ponstein says. That means finding applicants who are willing to change and try new things.
An applicant with those four qualities will probably get hired by Gordon Food Service, even in the absence of a CDL, Ponstein says. The company is so confident of its training procedures that it believes it can train anybody to drive a truck if the other qualifications are in place. That's a matter of leadership that flows up from the drivers through the assistant transportation managers to upper management. Everybody is looking for ways to become better, knowing that the company has a process for building its success internally, he says.
“We owe it to the company to hire people who have the capability to be better than we are,” Ponstein says. “We always need to be trying to hire our replacements.”
The formal delivery driver-training program at Gordon Food Service is three weeks. With the complexities of foodservice distribution, a longer training program might be better, but eventually drivers need to be let loose on their own. To make sure the program works as planned, drivers get refresher rides with an assistant transportation manager at 30-, 60-, and 90-day intervals after the end of formal training. Every driver in the company takes part in two annual performance reviews. Transportation managers are expected to make at least one delivery route per year with each of the drivers they supervise. That ride is absolutely necessary if the manager is to review the driver fairly, he says.
Sincere driver recognition
Driver recognition plays a big part in retention, but it can become phony if done too often, Ponstein says. Sometimes the best recognition seems to be the least formal. For instance, Gordon Food Service holds cookouts about every three months when the weather permits. The same procedure applies to the night transit drivers who pull shuttles to outlying distribution points. Managers meet them with fresh food when they return to the distribution center. Shuttle drivers get an extra privilege as well. At least once a year, the shuttle drivers can let their children ride along, he says.
Gordon Food Service believes in paying drivers to save the company money, Ponstein says. The company pays drivers to cut fuel consumption. The fuel-saving incentive is paid quarterly. The safety incentive can be as high as $100 per quarter plus a check on the anniversary of hire that pays $10 per year of service with safe driving. That means a driver can earn $400 in safety incentives plus a once-a-year payment based on safety and tenure. Incentives can drive delivery accuracy as well. Drivers get $2 for every case they find that is not supposed to be in their loads.
Although extremely important, compensation gets less attention in the driver equation than the other factors. As a matter of principle, Gordon Food Service pays its transportation department for work, not hours. Not a single member of the transportation team is paid by the hour with the exception of delivery drivers picking up backhauls, Ponstein says. In fact, the compensation plan is weighted heavily toward the number of cases delivered. This gives drivers an added incentive to push for increased sales to their customers. The result is more cases on a route delivered in fewer stops.
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