Content at the wheel

There’s more to your career than being just a driver if you do it right.

Some people are just after a paycheck while others truck happily along with their careers.

Obviously, life is better when you’re content with your career and where it’s going. You feel less stress and enjoy your days behind the wheel more. You have, in two words, job satisfaction.

So what is that?

An increasing percentage of Americans are not happy in their jobs, The Conference Board reported earlier this year. This decline is widespread among workers of all ages and across all income brackets.

Half of all Americans today say they are satisfied with their jobs, down from nearly 60 percent in 1995, according to the board’s report, which was based on a survey conducted by TNS, a market information company. But among the 50 percent who say they are content, only 14 percent say they are “very satisfied.”

The board reports that one in four of us just show up at work to collect a paycheck.

“Rapid technological changes, rising productivity demands and changing employee expectations have all contributed to the decline in job satisfaction,” says Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board’s Consumer Research Center. The board creates and distributes knowledge about management and the marketplace to help businesses strengthen their performance.

So what’s the difference? Why do some drivers rate their job satisfaction as high while others – doing essentially the same job – are dissatisfied? Money? Yes. But it’s just a single factor amid many.

More options
Even just a decade ago most drivers had fewer choices and less control over their destiny, says U.S. Xpress Director of Recruiting Gary Kelley. “The job satisfaction came from the paycheck,” he says. “There was very little choice in the industry. We said to drivers, ‘This is the job, this is how you do it, this is where you do it and when you do it, now take it or leave it.’

“But today drivers have choices, and making the right ones – not just choosing the best pay packet – is the key to increasing your job satisfaction.”

Pay is the cornerstone, the point where the job satisfaction debate begins. While pay may not be the sole issue in job satisfaction, without enough of it, the rest doesn’t matter. And pay almost inevitably attracts a driver in the first place. It’s the starting point.

Officials with J.B. Hunt, Crete Carriers, Covenant Transportation and Schneider National have said driver pay would have to increase dramatically before enough new drivers would enter the market.

“I don’t believe you can pat a driver on the head and put candy in the terminal and draw in drivers,” says J.B. Hunt CEO Kirk Thompson. “Treating them well is only the price of admittance. Pay and home time – if you’re not paying drivers and getting them home on a frequent basis, you’re going to be out of business. Driver wages are inadequate to attract enough qualified drivers.”

“Pay is important,” says Duane Acklie, chairman of Crete Carrier Corp. “We don’t have a shortage of drivers, just a shortage of drivers willing to work for what we pay.”

More than money
Money alone isn’t enough to guarantee job satisfaction behind the wheel or anywhere else, says Rob Reich, vice president in charge of company-wide recruiting at Schneider National. He says his company evaluates driver job satisfaction in three parts:

  • Pay
  • The type and nature of the work and how it fits the driver
  • How they are treated, by the company and by the people who work around them.

The Conference Board’s report found that how much you earn is not a guarantee of job satisfaction. Their survey found that job satisfaction has declined across all income brackets in the last nine years. While 55 percent of workers earning more than $50,000 are satisfied with their jobs, only 14 percent claim they are very satisfied. At the other end of the pay scale (workers earning less than $15,000), about 45 percent of workers are satisfied, and 17 percent express a strong level of satisfaction. Note that a strong level of satisfaction is more common in people earning less than $15,000 than those making more than $50,000.

A survey by Development Dimensions International in 2004 talked to 1,000 employees from companies who had a staff of more than 500 workers. They found a lot of employees reported being bored, lacking commitment to the job and looking for a new place to work. But their pay checks ranked only at No. 5 in their lists of reasons for looking to move on. Top of the list was a need to find a place with better chances for promotion (43 percent), more challenging work (28 percent), more exciting work (23 percent) and more varied work (21 percent).

And yet, when a Truckers News survey asked: “If you have changed carriers recently, what promoted you to make the move?” the single biggest response was “better pay” (42.5 percent). Next came job conditions – less stressful working environment (29.5 percent), better working conditions (27 percent), previous employer was not being honest (25.3 percent) and better benefits (23 percent).

This suggests that while how much money you put in your pocket is not the leading source of true job satisfaction, it may be the leading source of job dissatisfaction. Another interpretation is that drivers seeking increased job satisfaction changed jobs for the wrong reason.

Research has also shown that feeling underpaid can lead to such job problems as lateness, absence and turnover. And turnover sits at about 100 percent in the trucking industry. Yet according to veteran industry analyst Duff H. Swain of the Trincon Group, a business consulting company with more than 20 years working with the trucking industry, some companies manage only 35 to 50 percent annual turnover. A University of Illinois study in the 1980s said 30 percent was an attainable annual turnover figure in the trucking industry.

“It’s no secret that small companies often boast of remarkably low turnover rates because of their ability to establish personal relationships with drivers,” says Swain. The drivers feel they’re an important part of a team, and they stay.

But many small companies lose this closeness as they grow and run head on into driver retention problems, says Swain.

Could the personal touch and a feeling of genuinely being needed be more important than pay?
Swain says yes. “Drivers leave companies because they perceive a lack of communication and feel like they are not respected or valued. It is not a pay issue,” he says. “Time and again trucking companies have increased pay, only to find that drivers will still leave, blaming poor earnings or lack of miles. But the bottom line is do drivers feel valued? Pay, of course, is a motivating force in non-competitive situations. But equalize the pay and you will find the problem still exists.”

So what to do? “Drivers want to be treated fairly,” Swain says. “They want to know what is expected, whom they work for, how they are doing, how to resolve problems and what is going on that will affect them.” He proposes truckers choose companies with a “career track” to give drivers a sense of being a valued part of a company with a clear-cut path into the future.

Schneider National’s Reich says his company uses both formal and informal communication processes so that both company and driver are kept informed about what is happening. It’s a way to exchange ideas, feelings and a general assessment of how each side thinks the other is doing and where they are going.

“We do annual driver surveys,” says Reich, “and you need a formal process like this to make sure you do talk. But you must also have a way for people to talk to each other in a more relaxed way as well. And there are two keys in all of this communication – both sides must listen, I mean really listen, and the process must be two way. We need to know how and what the driver thinks, and the driver needs to know the same about us.

“If you’re doing it right, the service team leaders (driver managers) don’t have to wait for formal meetings to know what drivers are thinking or what they want or don’t want.
Communication should just happen, and that will leave the driver aware of where he stands and what the future holds. That’s very valuable to a driver; it’s a central part of any job satisfaction.”

More than ‘just a driver’
Surveys show that doing a single task is a recipe for boredom and other job dissatisfactions. Trucking, say experts, company executives and satisfied drivers, gives you a chance to expand your professional skills, and there is ample evidence this has potential to bring a great deal of job satisfaction.

Job satisfaction also can have a lot to do with where drivers have come from and what goals they have set for themselves in the industry. “Many U.S. Xpress drivers have retired from another career – teachers, factory workers, police, firemen, and ex-military to name a few,” U.S. Xpress’ Kelley says. “Many want to see the country. Several husband and wife teams who couldn’t afford the RV lifestyle – they still need incomes and medical benefits.

“Others are hunters, fishermen and motorcycle riders. They take off as needed to do their things. Several grandparents with children and grandchildren in different cities – they visit the whole family when they are dispatched to the right cities.”

Massachusetts-based Roadway Express driver Steve Norbeck found his satisfaction training future truckers.

“It’s something that touches something within me. I get a lot of satisfaction when someone in a classroom suddenly understands something,” says the 34-year veteran driver. “When someone ‘gets’ a hazmat regulation or procedure, that’s a special feeling for me. Being able to get out of the truck and do something else, to pass on what I’ve learned over the years, is really rewarding. To know you’re not just a driver but someone whose experience is being used, being relied upon, is a big part of my job satisfaction.”

Norbeck also finds fulfillment in the fact that he signs off on his students, making his judgment the standard the company uses when it assesses drivers. The company also gives him a lot of leeway in how he does his training, clearly communicating to him that he is in charge of his work and not just going through the motions.

“You feel good when you know your judgments and decisions are not second guessed, that you’re respected and relied on to do something important and something more than driving,” Norbeck says.

Ted Gilberson has driven for 26 years with Marten Transport and is now a senior road skills evaluator with the company. To him, truck driving is a lot more then driving down the road. “You have to work with customers, dispatchers and a lot of other people along the way,” he says. “Learning how to communicate and interact with different kinds of individuals can go a long way toward helping you have a successful career.”

Going the extra mile can not only improve satisfaction but also improve a driver’s chances for success and advancement. “When a driver starts thinking about ‘his’ customers instead of company customers, when he starts thinking of himself as someone who is the front man to make sure the customer is happy, he becomes the sort of driver a company needs and wants to hang on to,” says John Shaw, who is responsible for recruiting and driver qualification at Warren Transport. “He’s likely to be promoted more than drivers who simply shrug their shoulders, say it’s not their problem and give the customer a phone number back at headquarters.”

Organizational psychologist Dr. Sheryl Youngblood says commitment is a huge factor in being satisfied with your job. “I’ve seen a lot of truck drivers begin to experience a renewed zest for living when they make a commitment to get involved in something,” she says. “For some, it has been as simple as writing. For others, it might mean working on behalf of a worthy cause. The commitment will be something different for each person, because we all have different talents and callings.”

Youngblood hosts the Knight Time Radio Show, a call-in talk show for truckers, and co-host Jimmy Frost drives long haul. “Jimmy maintains that the work he does with animal rescue keeps him happy and helps him endure the long periods away from home because he’s closely involved in something that is bigger than himself and trucking,” Youngblood says.

“In all cases, the drivers that I find are the happiest are those who feel a passion about their commitment.”

Be proud of what you do
As drivers you help others every day of the week. So let it show. If the public perceives you as someone who helps others, they will hold you in higher prestige. And that is a significant ingredient in job satisfaction.

The University of Michigan found in a 2004 study that the most satisfied workers were those who felt they had a positive impact on others. This was so much the case with many firefighters that they reported they wished they could fight more fires.

A Harris Poll measuring job prestige that was released in summer 2005 found four occupations are perceived to have “very great” prestige by at least half of all adults – firefighters, scientists, doctors and nurses. Three professions are perceived to have “very great” prestige by 40 percent or more but less than 50 percent – military officers, teachers and police officers.

Making money doesn’t win people prestige (business executives and stockbrokers were in the bottom half of the Harris Poll’s list), and fame doesn’t bring prestige (entertainers and actors were also in the bottom half of the list). What is prestige? The Harris Poll says simply, “It’s about helping others.”

“Helping others is what truckers do,” says Youngblood, “but most of the public doesn’t know that. There’s an irony here. A lot of drivers feel badly that the public doesn’t like them, and that eats away at job satisfaction. Yet they are doing the one thing that the public does respect people for – helping other people.”

The Society for Human Resource Management has published a report of a survey done in conjunction with talking to both Human Resources Departments and employees. The HR folk say that communications between employee and management would be the No. 1 choice of employees asked about their overall job satisfaction. But the employees’ No. 1 choice was job security.

Interestingly, the survey found that people in human resources departments, when assessing job satisfaction, appeared to put more emphasis on the “interactions that employees have with management, immediate supervisors and co-workers” than the workers did. And when they did this, they risked overlooking “just how important aspects such as employee autonomy and independence, work/life balance and the work itself is to employees.”

The survey eventually concluded that HR people were aware that employees are satisfied with the jobs but not clear on precisely why this is so.

The final conclusion of the survey found that age is a factor in job satisfaction. “Career advancement is considerably more important for employees 35 and under compared to older employees. Job security is ‘very important’ to employees 36-55 more so than other age categories, while for employees 56 and over benefits took precedence. In terms of overall job satisfaction, employees 36-55 were most content, 80 percent were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs, followed by employees in the 56 and above age range. The youngest employees also appear to be the least satisfied.”

What does this mean for driver job satisfaction? The survey suggests that what you are looking for to raise your level of job satisfaction may not always be what your carrier thinks you are looking for. This could lead to a company making what they consider an excellent job offer when you would rather have a different offer. Bottom line: Ask questions of a carrier and let them know what is really important to your job satisfaction.

Another study, this one in the Journal of Vocational Behavior in December 2001, looked at the perception drivers had of their relationship between themselves and the job, and themselves and their carrier, talking to 104 office personnel and 127 drivers.

The study found that employees who had a positive perception of their relationship with their company were more likely to go above and beyond the letter of their job description and do a little more when they were at work. Bottom line: Your relationship with the work you do is not the same thing as your relationship with the company you work for. They are two distinct parts of job satisfaction, and in the end your relationship with your employer carries more weight when deciding if you are satisfied with your job.

Richard Alford, 51, started driving in 1972, and, less some time in the service, has driven for 26 years. The ABF Freight System driver, based in Louisville, Ky., says there is a key to his job satisfaction: “Personally I like the challenges that I encounter on a daily basis. I like to motivate the customers and be courteous on the highway, to demonstrate professionalism, to be the best driver I can be. I like to be an encouragement to other drivers. I think that’s all part of the profession. Driving isn’t just getting loaded and unloaded and being on your way. And money alone doesn’t do it. The challenge is it takes a lot of concentration and a lot of training to be the driver that you need to be. The satisfaction comes from not just doing enough but doing the best you are capable of doing.

“I’ve always been committed to what I do,” says Alford. “That commitment means I’m never ‘just driving.’ I’m always a professional driver. It’s not a one-dimensional career if you want satisfaction from it.”

Home again and very satisfied
Marshall Platter knows truck driving. He’s been doing it for more than 30 years, hauling pretty much everything that the industry has to offer for a lot of different companies. He’s been a company driver, owner-operator and small fleet (six trucks) owner.

And he knows about job satisfaction.

It’s a two way-street, he says. “This is not a simple industry. Sure you need the right stuff from your company, but a lot of the satisfaction you can take out of this job depends on what you put into it. It can be what you make it. You can’t just sit back and expect it to deliver satisfaction. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.”

Not so long ago Platter decided to change jobs. He left his job driving for Marten and found “a better fit” for his needs at a small, 15-truck fleet in home base Houston, working as both a dispatcher and a recruiter. When it didn’t pan out, he went back to Marten.

“I tried it,” says Platter, 51, “but it didn’t work out, so I came home.”

Marten, he says, gives him what he needs to get the maximum job satisfaction out of life behind the wheel of a big rig. At its core it sounds a lot like the factor Duff H. Swain of the Trincon Group, a business consulting company with more than 20 years working with the trucking industry, laid out as the reason smaller companies can have dramatically lower turnover rates – the “ability to establish personal relationships with drivers.”

“I want to work for a company where the people give a damn. I can talk to the most senior executives of this company, and I know they listen to what I say and what other drivers say. You can tell they’re not just trying to look friendly,” Platter says. “They’re available to us, and they’ll sit down and talk to us. Drivers value that sort of communication, and they value honest communication. Honesty is especially important. Drivers don’t like jobs were the company floats you with a bunch of false expectations. Don’t promise to get us home every weekend if you can’t keep it. We’d rather hear someone say they’ll try to get us home every weekend and mean it. Get offered so many cents a mile, then come to find out the miles aren’t there, and there’s no job satisfaction because the relationship wasn’t honest to start with.”

A recent Truckers News poll found many drivers see a dishonest carrier as a significant reason for changing jobs.

In his smaller company dispatching and recruiting job, Platter hired new drivers for as little as 21 cpm. “But they were hub miles, not map miles, and I could prove to drivers what they could earn. I could also show them that if they kept in touch and told us what they wanted, we would do our best to do it. And we did. And they knew it. We got a lot of drivers home for the weekend to Houston, and that created a lot of job satisfaction for the drivers.

“If we couldn’t get them where they wanted to be or solve a problem immediately, we told them why. We explained what was happening and how we planned to get them the best arrangement we could. Sometimes they might get stuck for a weekend, but they always knew why and they knew we were trying our very best for that not to happen. They also knew we’d try and make it up. Marten does that. too.”

Sounds like more of Swain’s recipe for keeping good drivers satisfied. Drivers, Swain says, “want to know what is expected, whom they work for, how they are doing, how to resolve problems and what is going on that will affect them.”

Drivers, says Platter, can suffer from tunnel vision. A company that doesn’t keep them informed risks drivers thinking the worst about their situation. “A lot of drivers are unsatisfied because they think one thing when reality is another,” he says. “Marten keeps us informed of the bigger picture so if something isn’t exactly the way I wanted it I’ll know why, I can see what’s happening.”

Money is a major factor, Platter says, but not the only one. “It’s part of the mix, but so are a lot of factors. Job satisfaction in this industry is not just about one issue. Most drivers want to work for a good company, with honest people they have confidence in, who pay them well and keep then informed about what’s going on. I know what I want out of this career, and I know where I stand when it comes to getting it.”

Herzberg’s Theory
Frederick Herzberg, who came to prominence in the 1950s, is generally considered the father of motivational studies. His key work was the Two Factor Theory of Human Motivation in which he theorized that job satisfaction depended on two distinct sets of issues. One was factors which, if not met, could create unhappiness. The other set was made up of “motivators,” things that the employee could do to enhance job satisfaction. Simply put, his theory might look something like the checklists below.

So, says Herzberg, dissatisfaction and satisfaction on the job spring from different factors and not just two different sides of the same coin – that is to say that if something provides satisfaction ( e.g. recognition) the lack of it does not necessarily produce dissatisfaction, and vice versa.

Basically, the factors in the first column are essential to make sure an employee is not dissatisfied. The factors in the other column are needed in order to motivate an employee to do his best – and be more satisfied because of it.

If you have put no check marks in either column, odds are you don’t enjoy your job. A good score in the left-hand column but not in the right probably leaves you feeling “a job is a job and it pays the bills, so who cares if I’m motivated?” A high right-hand column score but a low score on the other side is likely to leave you eager to follow your career in trucking but constantly complain about the working condition at your company. The idea, of course, is to score highly in both columns.

Potential Dissatisfaction Factors (if not done right by company)

  • Company policies
  • Administration of company policies
  • Supervision
  • Salary, status, security
  • Interpersonal relations
  • Working conditions

Potential Satisfaction Factors (motivators)

  • The work itself
  • Achievements
  • Recognition
  • Responsibility
  • Interest level
  • Advancement potential
The Business Manual for Owner-Operators
Overdrive editors and ATBS present the industry’s best manual for prospective and committed owner-operators. You’ll find exceptional depth on many issues in the 2022 edition of Partners in Business.
Partners in Business Issue Cover