Intermodal Industry Sees Workforce Opportunities
Intermodal faces increasingly difficult recruiting challenges in a strong North American labor market, which are being met by a wide range of approaches to retain workers once they are hired, experts from across the industry insist. Ten commenters identified the challenges and solutions for Intermodal Insights.
The challenges include changing market conditions, competition from other businesses and transport modes, operational obstacles, difficult working conditions and changing worker demographics.
"It is tough for all businesses to find the right worker,” said Nick Urso, chief executive of Bear Cartage & Intermodal, addressing current market conditions. "You not only want to find the right fit for your company, but the right fit for the employee as well.”
Dave Hensal, CEO of Eagle Systems, and Mark McKendry, regional vice president of North American intermodal for NFI Industries, identified other trends that are hurting recruiting and retention, such as capacity challenges, slower tractor velocity and unpaid wait time.
"So much of the intermodal industry depends on driver efficiency,” said Hensal. McKendry noted that those factors have trumped intermodal’s advantages of being home nightly and having a predictable work schedule.
Gerry Bisaillon, vice president of optimization, engineering and mechanical, REMPREX LLC, elaborated on the personnel challenges.
"Finding mechanics and equipment operators is proving to be extremely difficult,” he said. "The demand for these workers, who are reliable, safe, predictable, with good records is continually increasing.”
Bisaillon said the competitive bidding process forces contractors to lower rates to keep business, which makes it difficult to provide competitive compensation to workers. Anthony agreed that competitive pressures limited the ability to pay above-market wages, which makes competition for workers more difficult against other businesses.
Other factors are at work.
Urso said recruiting and retention can be more difficult for intermodal fleets because some drivers don’t want to deal with chassis, container lifts and storage issues.
Less complicated working conditions prompt some drivers to switch to over-the-road operations, particularly regional runs, said Max Farrell, CEO of Workhound.
Competitors who spread misinformation about the intermodal industry also hurt business, said Xavier Fleetwood, manager of the Ellenwood, Georgia terminal for Hale
Age is a factor, too. Bisaillon added that newer generations of potential employees appear to be less interested in manual labor type jobs, such as terminals.
"Terminals can be dusty or loud and don’t offer the same comfortable conditions one might find in an office, warehouse or the cab of a locomotive or truck," said Doniele Carlson, assistant vice president at Kansas City Southern.
Because many intermodal terminals operate 24/7/365, the environment is challenging for new hires, who often have to work night or swing shifts. The physically demanding work, especially in colder climates, has further hampered staffing, Anthony said, to the point that some new hires don’t finish their first day.
As many challenges as there are in today’s market, at least as many solutions to retain workers are being advanced.
Treating Workers Better
Better treatment of workers and improvements to the intermodal operations process were the steps cited most often to enhance retention. Training, technology, creating a career path and an emphasis on inclusion and creativity also are important. Eight commenters stressed the importance of worker treatment.
"Trucking is a people business," Urso said. "If you do not treat people the way you want to be treated, you are going to have a hard time keeping quality people on your team."
Bisaillon emphasized the importance of enhancing quality of life, which extends beyond total compensation to include consistent assignments, remote work options and the use of appreciation and engagement tools.
"It helps if workers feel they’re part of the solution," Anthony said. "There are many things you can do such as buying lunch and recognizing work anniversaries to let people know you care and they’re appreciated, which goes a long way for retention."
McKendry emphasized the importance of respecting people to ensure that clichés such as, creating a team environment, are not simply platitudes.
Similarly, Katie George Hooser, chief marketing officer at IMC Companies, noted that the emergence of a younger workforce has increased the importance of balancing work and life needs.
"Empathy and understanding are key," Farrell said. "Companies need to be taking extra steps to ask their employees about their needs. Companies need to consider the unique needs of their employees and bridge the communication gap between workers and office staff and executives."
In addition, Patrick Trausch, a business development specialist at Lincoln Educational Services, said creating specific job performance objectives and offering immediate, positive feedback help retention by showing employees how employers are committed to them.
"We pride ourselves on creating an environment that fosters a family-oriented workspace where all voices are heard," Fleetwood said.
Operational Process Improvement
Improving intermodal’s work process is another important step, experts said.
For example, Hensal said supplying chassis to drivers can improve retention by improving efficiency, particularly at port terminals. So can resolving issues faster by using mobile dispatch applications and improving paperwork flow.
At the same time, Hensal recognized the efforts of railroads, truckers, terminal operators and the marine industry.
"Each operator has come a long way in making improvements and trying to make them," Hensal said. "Terminal operators are listening to trucking companies more than they ever have."
Hooser also stressed that improved fluidity at port and rail terminals will help to make facilities more attractive to drayage drivers, aiding retention.
Bisaillon emphasized the benefits of flexible staffing to match train and truck operations, and increased investment in terminal equipment, as well as lighting, shops and ground conditions.
Hale Intermodal believes processes can be revamped with more timely and predictable operations and elimination of antiquated practices, Fleetwood said. So will greater assignment flexibility, which cuts down on forcing drivers to accept loads.
Kansas City Southern’s Carlson said increasing the number of corporate-owned terminals "has changed the landscape of intermodal terminal operations."
Better training, done in multiple ways, complements a focus on worker treatment and process improvement.
Anthony said Northeast Transfer cross-trains workers to handle multiple tasks. NFI identifies workers who enhance the company culture and invests in them from a training and development perspective because they are the "glue" that binds a team together, McKendry said.
"Providing proper training will increase confidence and an employee's desire to perform well," Urso said, praising industry efforts such as webinars to help employees learn more about trucking, and overall intermodal operations.
"Drivers have to be seen as coachable," Farrell explained, dispelling the notion that drivers are either good or bad. "The industry is already short on talent, so seeing them as coachable ultimately helps the entire industry."
Trausch agreed. "Hiring for coachability is critical, as long as you are a great coach. This approach doesn't have to be expensive, complicated or overly time-consuming. In today's hiring market, which is arguably more competitive than ever before, you can win by hiring for baseline skills and traits.
Technology Creates Advantages
Advancing technology goes hand-in-hand with treatment, process and training solutions, to improve intermodal.
Fleetwood said more effective technology, such as applications, can smooth the process for drivers and rail terminal workers alike, creating camaraderie instead of frustration.
"Technology in trucks, including anti-collision systems, makes driving a truck safer than ever before," Hooser said, which can potentially facilitate lowering the interstate driving age to 18. "Changing the age requirement accordingly would allow potential candidates to enter our workforce right after high school, before they become invested in another trade."
McKendry stressed how technology can measure employee engagement beyond the typical 30-, 60- or 90-day cycle by using third-party software that ensures anonymous responses. Such technology also should gauge attitudes of more senior workers, stretching beyond 10 years.
Hensal said Eagle uses technology to receive driver feedback, and has improved its social media presence, with an emphasis on drivers’ positive attitudes to tell "good stories about our fleet".
Clearly, compensation also matters.
Bisaillon said more certainty in total compensation, including base salary or hourly rates as well as health, retirement and vacation benefits are important, particularly to the new generation of intermodal workers. As a result, some freight rates will have to increase.
"The market is driving wages higher at this moment in time, and it is vital to remain competitive within both the industry we serve, and within the industries that view our talent as attractive," McKendry said.
Clear Career Path
Retention efforts also need to emphasize advancement.
"Many workers are looking for a career path with upward mobility instead of just a job," Carlson said. "Intermodal ramp jobs may be more enticing if they come with a career path to more advanced and lucrative operations positions."
McKendry stressed the importance of considering how to promote "pro culture" workers into leadership roles.
Farrell went a step further. "In order to keep quality workers … we need to assume they already have one foot out the door, because it’s likely they do, unless their employer is proactively addressing turnover. Avoiding an active retention strategy doesn’t make the problem go away; it makes it worse."
On the corporate level, Norfolk Southern strives "to cultivate an inclusive workplace where a wide range of perspectives and experiences are valued and respected," said a spokesperson, explaining that NS was the first Class I carrier to join CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion.
"We are taking creative approaches to attract and maintain operating employees to successfully meet customer expectations as business levels continue to increase, she said, including targeted hiring to areas with the greatest need.