Want to improve retention in trucking? Define 'professionalism' to set the standard, build value

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Updated Oct 7, 2022

The other day I was listening to my favorite trucking radio show and a question came to mind. It sounds simple, but the answer is not often expressed in full: What does it mean to be a professional truck driver? To get to that answer, I could go by my own opinion and experience. I could lean on the opinions and experience of other truckers I know. But really, it’s the opinions and actions of all throughout trucking -- companies, logistics managers, driver managers, owner-operators -- that define the professional term in practice.

While trucking shorthand tends to assume all truck drivers are professionals, that of course is not always be the case. The simple fact that someone drives a truck for a living does not make a professional.

How many in trucking actually define what a professional looks like, such that when an operator is hired or leased on he/she knows exactly what is expected of them? In my own past experiences with being hired on, I’ve never known a carrier to define it.

With all the talk of late around retention of the best in trucking, it seems to me that if companies of all sorts see that as a goal, the first thing they must do is avoid treating each driver as a commodity that can be replaced by another easily. Second, they should make it clear just how they define a professional and what they expect from their professional drivers.

Too often today, professionalism seems to be an unspoken expectation tied to learned experience and integrity.

That begs another question, though: What exactly is integrity in trucking? This one will be more difficult to answer.

Professionalism in practice

Some aspects of a professional definition are probably obvious and not up for debate for most owner-operators here.

A professional truck driver makes a living driving a truck and using that truck to haul goods from one area to another in a safe manner -- for producers, manufacturers and others. A professional exhibits specific habits that define who they are as a truck operator. They do not have an ego that stipulates that they are the only one on the road that matters. In other words, they have nothing to prove to anyone but themselves. They do not maintain a hurry-up mentality of tailgating, blocking to keep others from changing lanes or merging. They are not yelling at other drivers on the CB or in traffic and aren’t in the habit of showing a fellow driver he/she is No. 1 for doing something they do not like, or making a mistake.

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They use turn signals when turning, changing lanes, merging into traffic.

There are many out there who do not do these things -- in fact, they often do the opposite. Though such operators may even have in some cases many safe miles behind them, those types of truckers most professionals might think of as mere holders of the steering wheel, as it were, because they are not acting with integrity.

A professional acts in a safe manner. A professional puts safety first, a mentality the pro must carry at all times. Emotions play a huge role -- an operator who stays calm, uses their head and controls their emotions will always exhibit professionalism. They create space when someone cuts them off, they anticipate that mistakes will be made by nonprofessionals, and they always advertise what they are doing so others can adjust their actions. Being safe may not always seem fair or right, but that does not mean an unsafe act is fair or right.

The professional readily accepts the challenge to be just as responsible for keeping the public safe as they are for keeping themselves, their equipment and the product safe.

'Leave an out' to maintain integrity 

But how do you do that if you struggle, like I do, to control your emotions, that knee-jerk willingness to lash out and tell others what you really think? You must know your value as well as the value of others, and that is how integrity comes into play. Sometimes, I have put my own value in front of others', and had to step back and examine and critique my own frame of mind and what I value. I always try to come back to a focus on my Christian values, and seeing others how Christ would see them (not always an easy task).

Another thing I do is to lower my stress levels before I start my day, usually with meditation and Scripture, but mindfulness is something anyone can practice no matter what they believe.

[Related: Steer out of the ruts with mindfulness practice]

At more of a base level, I had to recognize that I am not any kind of on-highway hall monitor -- or traffic monitor, as it were. I am not a cop who is there to observe the actions of others and intervene when necessary. I am only responsible for and in full control of my own actions, not the actions of others. This helps me maintain sanity and happiness, and for me happiness delivers contentment. I expect nonprofessionals to be unprofessional, to do idiotic things. By doing so, I do not compromise my integrity when that inevitably happens, and keep my ego in check.

My old trainer often referred to this in more simple terms -- leaving yourself an out, anticipating what others might do and keeping an escape route in mind should that happen.

Any truck driver can develop skill over time to effectively back into tight places and maneuver around obstacles or traffic. But the professional always acts with integrity, with bedrock safety in mind. Their ability to deal with stress, weather, equipment failures, other drivers, law enforcement, customers and employers will determine how professional they are, and that reflects on the entire community and the companies they’re affiliated with.

Companies can try to hold their drivers accountable and train or coach them into the professional they want them to be. First, as noted above, define the standards. Weed out those who damage the community and place their livelihood at risk. If an operator cannot adapt and become the professional, they are better off doing something else for a living. While companies may not wish to have an empty seat, it is better than a lawsuit and/or an early funeral. 

[Related: Choose professionalism to define, and create, your value]