Modern Transportation’s Patrick Cozzens’ strategy to attack hiring challenges

Hiring drivers can be tough for trucking companies in any environment. But this year, with supply chain and labor disruptions complicating many aspects of the market, the hiring and retention of drivers has been particularly difficult.

According to an October update by the American Trucking Associations, there’s a deficit of more than 80,000 drivers between the number of drivers in the market and the optimal number of drivers based on freight demand. At current trends, according to the update, the shortage could double in just eight years.

Modern Transportation’s President Patrick Cozzens understands this threat. He has worked on multiple fronts to lower the company’s driver turnover rate and make it an attractive place for drivers to work — through wages, scheduling, new trucks, a solid culture and a new facility. But there’s a limit to these accommodations.

Take, for instance, hours. Most drivers want a schedule that gets them home every night and keeps them home on weekends. But part of Modern Transportation’s client base is companies that manufacture roofing shingles. Those plants run 24/7, which means so must the drivers.

“I can staff those trucks Monday through Friday day shifts no problem,” Cozzens says. “Finding drivers who are willing to work at night or willing to work weekends or a weekend night or on Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day when there is an extreme shortage of truck drivers already is a challenge.”

He says for every CDL driver hired, nine positions remain open. That means drivers can turn down jobs for just about any reason, even if the pay is highly competitive.

“Filling those positions is hard,” he says. “We’re doing it, though. We get it done.”

In-house recruitment team

Modern Transportation does a lot of analysis to understand the rates of pay across the industry so it can adjust its wages and stay competitive. And it understands that less desirable shifts, such as nights and weekends, require even more financial consideration to court drivers. But challenging Modern Transportation further is the company’s need for experienced drivers who have their tanker endorsement, and its preference for drivers with a HAZMAT endorsement. That is limiting because drivers with those qualifications and experience make up just a fraction of an already shallow driver pool.

One counter to this challenge is an in-house recruiting team, which got its start with one full-time recruiter in 2016. Before that, Cozzens says the company didn’t need one.

“We were able to pay enough,” he says. “The managers at the terminals, they would post ads — in local newspapers and, starting around that time, Monster, Indeed is the platform of choice, but also Craigslist — and we were able to get the drivers we needed.”

When the driver candidate supply tightened in 2016 and want ads were no longer effective enough, the company hired its first field recruiter. A former truck driver, the recruiter traveled to all of Modern Transportation’s markets, met with drivers and advertised opportunities. The strategy proved so effective that today, the company has a dedicated five-person recruiting team that has helped the company grow to 450 employees.

The recruiters have also helped keep its turnover rate low. In 2020, the driver turnover rate was near 50 percent — remarkably low for an industry in which 100 percent pre-pandemic turnover rate is unsurprising. COVID’s impact on the market, however, spiked turnover for Modern Transportation in February and March, in large part because a demand surge encouraged many transportation companies to increase wages, giving drivers leverage. Still, the recruiting team has enabled the company to grow through the disruption and be profitable at the same time.

“It’s a tougher environment, but those who are more nimble, those who are more aggressive, those who pay better, you can still hire drivers in this environment,” Cozzens says. “It’s certainly harder, but we are able to grow in this environment.”

Retention is a mandate equal to hiring for the company’s recruiting department. Pay is a major part of that effort, but it starts as soon as a driver is hired. The recruiters touch base frequently with new hires to ensure they’re settling in and feel welcome. They’re also honest and up front with the drivers right from the get-go — for instance, talking candidly about the pros and cons of their shift.

An exceptional benefits program also helps. Cozzens says the company has not raised insurance premiums for drivers in five years. And if they participate in the company’s wellness program and commit to quitting smoking, the out-of-pocket expense to drivers goes down. There’s also an anniversary program that recognizes and rewards drivers at several longevity milestones throughout their careers.

Another tool Cozzens hopes helps with both retention and hiring is the company’s new facility. To its 22 terminals across 12 states, Modern Transportation has added eight acres in Robinson Township along the Ohio River and expects soon to build a truck terminal on the property — a strategic interest — and is considering other improvements such as a walking trail.

“So, really creating a campus where people are excited to come to work,” he says.

Customer diversification

Modern Transportation got its start hauling for the glass industry but since has worked on diversifying its customer base. For example, about 10 years ago, it began hauling chemicals, a move that was kicked off with a strategic hire in Alabama that led to adding some 30 drivers capable of hauling liquids. Modern Transportation was then able to land work with a Fortune 500 company in Ohio, hauling shampoos, soaps and detergents, among other things. To Cozzens, they’re inelastic products, giving the company a reliable customer and diversifying its industries served.

But not every strategic move made in the name of diversification has stuck. Around the same time, the company made an acquisition to capitalize on production from the Marcellus Shale. However, the cultures didn’t gel, so the move made Cozzens wary of inorganic growth.

“What I learned through that first acquisition is those people have got to share your values. They’ve got to believe in our mission,” he says. “And not everyone does. It just isn’t right for everyone.”

While he says some companies do fit the mold, organic growth, for now, is the focus. And he sees a lot of opportunity.

“I can add on 30, 50 drivers organically,” he says. “And everyone in our organization thinks that’s more enjoyable. It really happens because of our differentiators on service, people, our reputation. And it’s organic.”

The company is also looking to improve its business through steps Cozzens has taken to modernize the company. He’s championed technological initiatives to add customized dashboards and produce real-time metrics that help the company maximize payloads, analyze cargo seasonality and more.

“When we say (to clients), ‘Hey, we need a price increase,’ we say, ‘Look, I can show you exactly how long our trucks wait to unload at your facility. And if we were able to unload in 30 minutes like we used to, I have to pay that driver for the time he’s there, or I’m going to get one less load with that truck.’ And then they’ve changed something to the unload procedure that now makes it an hour, and I’m able to show them in detail. That gives me the backup to say, ‘Hey, this is what I need.’”

Technological upgrades

As more technology is introduced across the company, Modern Transportation has to ensure its people can leverage those technologies. It’s required being patient with employees who might feel challenged by the new tools, so before a technology rollout, Cozzens says companies should explain to employees why they’re introducing certain technologies and how they’re going to make the company better.

“It’s a lot of one-on-one time with people saying, ‘This is where we’re going. I want you to be able to come along.’ Not everyone is able to,” Cozzens says. “It’s a painstaking process. It involves patience, it involves empathy, listening to others.”

For some, the introduction of technology is exciting. But it changes what others do, so some may believe it’s a threat to their job, and that brings resistance. In that case, Cozzens says it’s important to be empathetic, put yourself in their shoes, ask them how they feel and, if they say they see it as a threat, explain why it is not. Ultimately, there will be people who are willing to change, people who need to be brought in to help make that change and others who will leave because of the change.

Overall, the technology upgrades have proven to be a significant benefit. They have even become a strategic tool when hiring, creating an environment that enables Modern Transportation to court and accommodate the best people. Additional technology upgrades could also be coming to the company’s trucks.

While Cozzens says he believes the future of vehicles is electric, the practical, widely available electric motor technology for the type of truck at Modern Transportation is still a few years out. So, the company will likely invest slowly in the technology so it doesn’t get stuck with something that is prohibitively expensive to operate or that quickly becomes obsolete.

“The one thing is we want — and I always say this — we want to be leading edge, not bleeding edge,” he says.

Looking ahead, Cozzens says the company has a steady focus on strategic growth in the markets that it serves and expects continued growth in the dry and liquid bulk space.

“There could be a very focused acquisition in five years, but we’re much more engineered toward funding organic growth,” he says. “We see a huge runway to be able to do that with the recruiting team we have in place, with the operations team we have in place, with the analytical team that we have in place. That’s my next five years. And I believe there’s a wealth of opportunity for us to be successful at doing that.”

TAKEAWAYS

  • Multifaceted strategies are needed to address hiring challenges.
  • Bring people along gently when introducing new technology.
  • Pace your technological investments.