Don’t demand, but command driver loyalty
“Is there any merit in fleet owners’ complaint (that) drivers have no loyalty towards them?” broached a pink paper friend covering the logistics beat recently. This query did not disturb me because loyalty is not a commodity sold or bought across the counter, and the concept of loyalty has to have a sound grounding to build a strong relationship. Where is such a strong tie between the fleet owners and their drivers? A hearty laugh was my response to my pink paper pal. That perhaps said it all.
Heard of the ‘live-in-relationship’ (LIR) concept prevailing in our society? Two opposite genders come and live together without any conventional marital ties or court-registered marriage. They go their separate ways as and when they decide, mutually or otherwise. There is nothing to hold them together. No law on earth can compel them to continue the LIR formula.
Replace the truck driver and fleet owner instead of these two LIR personalities. There is no piece of paper spelling out contractual obligations legally binding between them. “You drive my vehicle, and we will compensate you on a per kilometer basis plus incentive” is the apt description of their business ties. If so, where comes the long-lasting loyalty? So long as the going is good, driver drives and motor malik compensates. Period. In any relationship, differences are inevitable, and if these can be ironed out amicably, well, and good, the association continues. If not, they go their separate ways. Ta Ta, bye-bye!
Ideally, motor maliks would prefer a longer association with their drivers. Any shuffling of drivers is a pain for them. Why so? By and large, motor maliks hand over the vehicle to the newly hired and tell him, “the vehicle is your responsibility.” It is similar to kanyadhan (gifting daughter through marriage to the groom). Drivers have no qualms in accepting such arrangements, reflecting fleet owners’ foxiness and drivers’ stupidity.
It is not out of place to say that drivers love their trucks more than their spouses! Because the truck is a home away from home for them. They live with the truck. Significantly, this unusual driver-truck rishta (relationship) is one of the reasons why the rest-and-relay formula did not succeed.
Nonetheless, there are rare instances of 2–3 generations working with the same motor malik. Unlike the white-collar types, job insecurity is alien to truck drivers. If they wish, they can walk out from one motor malik today to land up another trucking job tomorrow. Such is the market dynamics.
In a long haul trip of, say, 1500 km Delhi-Mumbai, under the rest and relay formula, every 250–300 km driver changed while the vehicle continued the journey without losing time. So, at least five drivers changed en route. No two drivers steer the same way. Their driving style and skill are diverse since they never went to a driver training institute and were taught the same syllabus. Instead, they had “schooling” from seniors such as father, uncle, elder brother, or neighbor. A very individualistic pattern of skill education.
There are two critical issues: the wear and tear of the vehicle due to this multiple handling practice. Above all, the operation cost for fleet owners shoots up, and no shipper/receiver would be ready to partake even a part of these extra expenses. After all, the end-user is eager to keep his logistics cost as low as possible, and transportation is the milch cow. Take it or leave it, attitude. Earlier the customer would have greenlit some premium for the speedy delivery. Ultimately, transportation is a commoditized service. There is no big difference, and hence replacing one transporter with another one, offering the end user-dictated freight rate is child’s play. Quicker delivery at a lower freight; and, he is unconcerned about the economic viability of the fleet owner’s decision.
Under such circumstances, the fleet owner has few options: accept the offered freight, thus affecting his margin, if any. While the running kilometer remains unchanged between the destinations (pick up and delivery points), the outgo towards driver compensation equally remains the same. Any reduction in this driver compensation automatically snaps the LIR formula. Bingo, driver exits, thus leaving the fleet owner to question “driver loyalty.” Dicey, indeed.
Another pink paper pal’s query was: “Do you genuinely believe there is a driver shortage?” Honestly, I did not give a straight answer except parroting what Highways and Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari said (22%), and Pradeep Singal of AITWA said (30% and above).
I cannot recall any long-haul truck driver seeking my assistance to get a placement in my circle of fleet-owning transporters over the past 13 years when my innings with the Indian trucking ecosystem commenced. Nonetheless, the list of fleet owners pinging me regularly to get drivers to steer their vehicles is long. Simply put, truck driving jobs are aplenty, or there is a perpetual demand for this skilled job. Not excess supply.
There are always openings for truck drivers for short- or long-haul or first or last-mile delivery. Not only do VRL trucks on highways display “Drivers Wanted. Contact xxxxx xxxxx” but the tempos — diesel or EV variety — that enter my housing complex for last-mile delivery are also painted with the same plea: “Drivers Wanted. Contact xxxxx. xxxxxx”. The Zomato T-shirted delivery executives (what a fancy designation!) perched on their two-wheelers outside the clutch of eateries in the nearby commercial complex parking lot concede that their labor contractors are also looking for more drivers — oops! delivery executives!
So, there is definitely a driver shortage in every segment. Is the demand-supply mismatch affecting the economy since we are fond of drumbeating that transport is the backbone of the economy? Yes. It is safe to conclude that there are products to be delivered and vehicles are available but no drivers in sight to ferry them. Until the tangible products reach the end-user and the transaction consummated (exchange of money, I mean), the full value realization has not happened. The value chain is incomplete. Idling of assets is uneconomical, cry, asset owners. Rightly so.
Until products leave market shelves, delivered at the customer end, and cash received, retailers are unlikely to replenish stock. In turn, manufacturers will not produce more of those products which remain long on market shelves or slow-moving items. It is but natural for him not to seek raw materials/ components from his vendors to produce more. A vicious circle is created. Less demand. Less production. Therefore, less GDP.
There is no dispute over the supply of drivers falling short of demand. Drivers still crib a lot. Job hopping is very common, perhaps reflecting the white-collar millennials’ behavior in every sphere of business life. Incidentally, this lack of loyalty to fleet owners by truck drivers was another question raised by my pink paper friend.
Finally, are driver shortage and absence of loyalty interlinked? Not necessarily. In this materialistic world, workers — white, blue, or khaki-collared — aim for a regular source of income or sustainability. Career progression is not an issue for truck drivers, unlike the rest. Conventional economic wisdom says that small yearly inflation is good for the economy. The rising price level demands everyone to look for better income growth regularly: yearly at least. When there is no formal employer-employee relationship between fleet owners and truck drivers, is it too difficult to conjecture drivers leveraging their bets in a supply-starved driver market? The only way to ensure loyalty is to ensure decent working and living conditions, implying good wages and prompt payment. Backbones need solid support to avoid spinal injury.