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Truckers and Turnover turns 10

University of Minnesota, Morris Chancellor Jacquie Johnson practices driving a 80,000 pound truck at the Schneider National (SNI) training center in Green Bay, Wisc. Researchers at UMM, led by associate professor Stephen Burks, have partnered with SNI over the last decade on research related to retention and health for long-haul truck drivers.1 / 2
University of Minnesota Morris students Ruth Potter (left) and Manjari Govada (right) at Schneider National?s (SNI) training center in Green Bay, Wisc., during field research.2 / 2

MORRIS, Minn. - Each day, more than 100 people are killed in traffic accidents. Of those 100 people, 10 will die in an accident with a truck driven by a professional truck driver - about 3,600 people over the course of a single year.

Don Osterberg, Senior Vice President of Driver Training, Safety and Regulatory Compliance at Schneider National (SNI) hopes to improve those statistics, assisted by work done by University of Minnesota, Morris faculty and students to better understand the economics of the trucking industry and factors that impact driver health and safety.

"You don't have to pay me a lot of money to do my job if we can save one life, and I think we have, with many of the things that you folks have done," Osterberg said at a celebration for this decade-long research partnership last month. "In many ways, you've helped me think about our business differently than I have before."

Dr. Stephen Burks, associate professor of economics and management, has been one of the lead faculty members on the Truckers and Turnover Project since it began in 2002. Burks worked in the trucking industry between 1976 and 1986, but returned to academia after seeing the impact that economic deregulation had on the trucking industry.

Truckers and Turnover got on the road in 2002 when UMM senior Jon Huebner worked with SNI on his senior research project, thanks to his brother's working relationship with Osterberg. Each year, more student projects focused on research related to SNI.

"Those first couple of years were a gift-exchange model in which the students treated the time invested as learning time, the faculty treated the time invested as part of their teaching responsibility time and the company provided access to data on projects we decided jointly were of interest to them and feasible for our students - bite-sized enough, so to speak," explained Burks.

Burks' history and expertise about the trucking industry also allowed him to connect with Osterberg and SNI at a time when company executives were first looking at strategic planning.

"At the time we met Don, he had been in the trucking industry for about six months," said Burks. "In some sense, we grew up our research program as he grew into his role as a trucking leader - we just hit the sweet spot by accident."

In the summer of 2004, a large pilot was launched for a major research project, including an in-depth statistical analysis of SNI's operational and human resources data and a nine-month study of new SNI trainees to explore the problems of turnover in the trucking industry.

The trucking labor industry is made up of two segments: LTL (less than truckload) drivers like those who work for FedEx or UPS, and TL (truckload) drivers. The turnover rate for TL drivers is consistently high - above 80 percent of drivers quit within their first year - and remains a concern for companies like SNI that invest time and resources into training drivers.

Over nine months, Burks and student interns collected demographic and personality profiles of 1,065 drivers in SNI's trainee program. The team also performed basic economic experiments with each driver and gathered performance data over their careers.

Eventually, this extensive data set showed that, surprisingly, drivers with high basic cognitive skills were more likely to remain with the company beyond their year-long training contract. This research resulted in one major academic paper and has helped spin off other research related to the project.

The project's current focus has shifted to driver health, looking at the impact obesity has on sleep, and measuring the effectiveness of a pilot program developed by SNI to screen and treat drivers who many be at risk for fatigue-related accidents. Eventually, the goal is to convince the U.S. Department of Transportation to take a more active role in regulating these issues.

In the last year, two papers from the project have been published. The first, "Obesity is associated with the future risk of heavy truck crashes among newly recruited commercial drivers," looks at the relationship between body mass index (BMI) and crash risks. The second explores which measures of time preference predict outcomes. Both include co-authors from institutions around the world.

The research has also helped impact business and safety decisions at SNI - changing the workers' compensation and bonus payment systems, altering their training contract program, and shifting the way the company thinks about employee payment.

"In many ways, the interactions I've had with UMM have helped me think about thinking," said Osterberg. "It's really been, in some ways, an executive development for me to get me to look at things differently and more critically and to learn that the value is in having the right question, not necessarily in having the right answer.

As a leader in safety reform for the trucking industry, Osterberg said he has relied on the data and analysis from this project to support safety reforms in the industry.

"What you're doing is helping to change an industry. What you're doing here is helping to improve public safety. I would love to be able to bring someone in here to say, 'This is a life that we saved.' Unfortunately, the way it works you never know who that is. But I know in my heart that we've saved lives as a result of the great work that's been done by the faculty and students here."