Driver shortages, high driver turnover and higher driver costs represent a huge and growing dilemma for the waste industry. Emerging technologies called “Big Data Analytics” and “Driver Performance Optimization” can simultaneously reduce shortages and increase profitability when used with onboard computers. 

By Tom Malone

How do you manage your business successfully as drivers become scarce? How do you attract—and keep—the best of the shrinking driver pool? And how do you maintain the productivity and efficiency of your operation, or even expand your business, when driver turnover is so high?

You do not have to wait for driverless trucks to solve the problem nor do you have to increase your total compensation costs. You can instead use “big data” tools to reduce your demand for drivers, keep the drivers you like and motivate qualified drivers to come to you.

“Big data” describes huge data sets that are generated so fast and change so often that it is nearly impossible to process them manually. “Big data analytics” refers to the computerized process that distills big data into useful insights that would normally go undetected. In large fleet operations, big data analytics process information about location, pickups, skips, extras, speed, pace, break times, and more so that it can be used to set targets and measure driver productivity.

There are three main steps to successfully addressing a driver shortage. While they seem obvious, they are very difficult to achieve without automation and big data analytics.


Step 1:  Become More Productive so that You Require Fewer Drivers 

Instead of struggling to find more drivers to solve your staffing problem, consider a new approach: Reduce the number of drivers you need in the first place. Do this by automating your fleet and using the data you gather to get more from the drivers you already have. Automated performance management is like having a virtual supervisor observing, coaching and improving every driver during every moment of their day.

For example, eliminating 45 minutes of unproductive driver time per route and encouraging profitable practices is easier than you may realize. In addition to simplifying operations, implementing onboard computers along with driver performance optimization reporting can reveal which drivers take too much break time, move too slowly or waste time in other ways. Reclaiming this time can lead to route consolidation, fewer trucks and lower driver costs.


Step 2:  Retain High-Performing Drivers Via a Thoughtful Rewards Program

Once you have coached drivers to perform more profitably, why not use some of your savings to reward great drivers so that they stay? Driver incentive plans do not need to cost you more. In fact, when rewards programs are based on verifiable positive behavior, they pay for themselves with lower direct costs while creating a high-performing culture. Lower fleet costs can pay for lucrative incentive plans, better benefits, driver training, better facilities and more time off—factors that greatly influence drivers’ job satisfaction.

A good rewards program generates points for drivers as they demonstrate safe and productive practices. When they safely increase the pace of their work, use their time better and log more billable extras, they can accumulate points that can qualify them for recognition and tangible benefits. Higher driver satisfaction leads to greater retention and, ultimately, higher customer satisfaction.

Step 3:  Become an “Employer of Choice” so that Good Drivers Come to You 

If you must compete with other employers for talent, shouldn’t your offer stand out favorably in a way that does not bust your bank account? You can develop a reputation in your community for competitive wages, good benefits, stability and good working conditions so that drivers actively seek you out instead of your competitors.

You compete for workers in an environment where a $10,000 annual difference in pay represents a stunningly superior offer. Your operation can afford to make a better offer to drivers than your competitors can if you surgically eliminate unproductive driver time, consolidate routes, log more billable extras and get drivers to actively seek to perform better. If you can easily afford to pay more in the form of incentives, then you can establish a sustainable differentiator that your competitor cannot match. Why not make driver shortages your competitors’ problem, not yours?


Automation, Targets, Measurement and Business Intelligence

Many renowned business leaders know this: What you measure, is what you manage, is what you reward, is what you get. When you automate the measurement of driver behavior, you can manage by facts, not guesses, enabling you to uniquely coach each driver into demonstrably better performance. This process is referred to as driver performance optimization, which is notably different from the common route efficiency tool—route optimization.

For all of its many strengths, route optimization alone does not monitor human factors that affect productivity, such as clock-in and clock-out times, pace of pickups, number of driver breaks, reliable logging of billable extras, recording of route skips and reasons, and time to and from the landfill. These are human behaviors that only humans can manage—if they can detect driver behaviors in the first place.

But, what is the point of monitoring if you do not compare results to reasonable targets for each route? Without unique route-by-route targets for relevant metrics, what does “good” performance mean? As every hauler realizes, no two routes are the same: number of pickups, density of stops, route miles covered, miles to first pickup, miles to landfill and other factors vary. Given two drivers on different routes, Joe’s measurements will be different than Bob’s. So, targets for Joe’s route must be different than the targets for Bob’s.

The right automation product for you is one that can set unique targets for each route for dozens of metrics that affect profitability. Then the goal for each route is simple: run that route as well as it can be run so that pickups per shift hour is maximized. It does not really matter if Joe has more pick-ups per day than Bob. The “best” driver is one that runs a route as close to the ideal as possible, given the nature of that particular route.


Better Monitoring and Better Targets Lead to Better Driver Coaching

Drivers improve only if you (a) clearly communicate your expectations, then (b) monitor what they do, and (c) routinely coach them towards better performance. Supervisors often stumble with constructively coaching drivers because it typically requires setting manual targets for dozens of metrics and scores of drivers—never an easy task.

The best fleet automation tools can formulaically generate targets for relevant metrics that are unique and appropriate for each driver on every route. Such tools use historical route data and industry benchmarks to generate realistic “stretch targets” that account for differences in route type, truck type, route density and more. This approach produces (1) financial reports that rank routes by improvement potential so you know how much you stand to gain from productivity improvements and better extras logging, and (2) unique and understandable driver coaching reports that target the specific weaknesses of every driver. This kind of “evidence-based” performance monitoring makes coaching sessions more productive.

Which of these statements works better?  

“Joe, I want you to work harder and faster.”

“Joe, I want you to take four breaks, not six; I want you to start your route five minutes sooner after clock-in; I’d like you to spend less time at the landfill.”

Of the two coaching instructions, the latter provides clearer actionable instructions that might lead to performance improvement. Driver performance optimization from big data analytics brings more precision and more objectivity to each coaching session.


How it Works: Beyond Smart Trucks to Smart Drivers 

A big data solution builds upon onboard computers and software that are already available from established vendors. Using route data history that is collected from these systems, a driver performance optimization system can generate route-by-route targets, individualized coaching reports and profit-potential reports.

As driver performance improves with more pickups per day from each driver, a fleet can reduce overtime, consolidate routes and potentially expand a hauler’s service area. Big data analysis is great for increasing efficiency and profits for the business, but it does not work if it only provides penalties to the employees being tracked. The goal of driver performance optimization is not to micro-manage drivers’ every move, but to enable continuous coaching and improvement that benefit both the driver and the owners or organization.


Insight, Coaching, Rewards—A Winning Formula

Using big data technology and driver performance optimization creates the opportunity to make the most of the resources you have and combat the chronic driver shortage and high turnover in our industry. By improving efficiency across your whole fleet, you can merge routes and reduce the number of trucks and drivers you need to operate successfully. You can also more easily retain the drivers you have by rewarding them for continuous improvement.  It is a win for fleet executives, a win for drivers and, ultimately, a win for customers.

Tom Malone is CEO of Routeware® (Portland, OR), a leading provider of technology to the waste industry. He has more than 28 years of experience in the software, computer services and telecommunications industries. For more information about fleet automation and business intelligence for the waste industry, visit