Cleaning Up ‘Dirty Jobs’

Trucking is an integral part of the United States’ economy. The more trucks on the road and the more inventory being moved, the better the strength of the economy.

But while overall trucking revenue was about $700 billion in 2014, there is a shortage of roughly 40,000 drivers, according to the American Trucking Association. If the economy is pushing for growth, which means truckers are in high demand, why aren’t people interested in rig-rolling the country? According to human resources experts, the answer is simple: Being a truck driver has never been a desirable job because of low pay, paltry benefits and odd work hours.

When the economy is on an upswing, these less-desirable jobs become more likely to experience shortages, experts said. Those willing to take them on during economic downswings have now found better, more enjoyable work.

Some of these jobs are “repulsive” no matter the state of the economy, said David Allen, professor of management at the University of Memphis.

Promotion Predictions

Aside from helping retain talent, are promotions the best route to take? Matthew Bidwell, associate professor of management at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, studied investment banks, comparing people who had been promoted with those who were hired from outside.

One of his main findings was that promoted employees got better performance evaluations for the first two to three years. After that, there wasn’t much of a difference between the two groups. He thinks a explanation for this is the time it’s taking people to be effective within the new organization.

Bidwell also said the people being promoted tend to look worse on paper. Because of this, “you don’t have to pay them as much because they’re not as appealing to other employers.” With their qualifications, people coming from outside of the company have more bargaining power when it comes to salary.

But how much can a company promote one person? Bidwell said this is where the “Peter Principle” comes in. This principle states that people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence.

“It’s a very cynical take on organizations,” Bidwell said. “But the basic idea is that if you’re just promoting people based on past track record, you’re not necessarily thinking about how well they can do the job that you’re promoting them into.”

Bidwell advised having job applications to fill certain roles. He said the emerging evidence is that organizations with open, competitive processes tend to do better than those who don’t.

—Lauren Dixon

Think garbage collectors or other “dirty jobs.” “If you’re doing something that society sort of views as dirty … how do you as an individual sort of frame that so that you can still take pride in your work and enjoy going to work every day?” Allen said.

And with the nature of work shifting to more service-oriented creative work, finding a palatable career path doing routine work like driving a truck can be a hard sell for talent managers, said Andrea Alaimo, human resources director at trucking company Redwood Logistics.

But every economic cycle calls for people to do dirty jobs. So how can talent managers in these industries bolster their recruitment and retention strategies?

Scrubbing Out the Stigma

To overcome the social stigma that comes along with a dirty job, people have used a variety of tactics.

In a 2007 study in The Academy of Management Journal, researchers explain that society equates cleanliness with goodness and dirtiness with badness. “The taint of dirty work creates a real dilemma for its practitioners,” the study said.

Managers in these types of roles face challenges typically found in managing a staff, but they have additional complexities because of the stigmas associated with their jobs. For some managers, this means reframing the meaning of their work on the surface by focusing on a positive value or neutralizing the negative value.

Another way to overcome the stigma of a “dirty job” is recalibrating its meaning, adjusting the standards used to assess the work and making a seemingly trivial task appear important.

Exterminators, for example, might focus on their knowledge of entomology, thus making them professionals, The Academy of Management Journalstudy said. Refocusing attention to the nonstigmatized aspects of a job might also help. A car salesman, for example, could see the benefit of a shorter workday.

These tactics of reframing, recalibrating and refocusing aspects of a job can change the mindset to be more positive, and managers can “speak of their work in more or less ideological terms,” the study suggested.

Aside from these tactics of rethinking, more rigorous recruiting practices can help when seeking to fill these types of positions.

Alaimo said that referral bonuses are a common recruiting practice. A current employee can refer a friend for a position in the company and receive a monetary reward. She said this has been an effective tactic for Redwood as it recruits truckers— at least 30 percent of its new recruits are from referrals.

Redwood also does exploratory phone calls prior to setting up a formal interview. Recruiters can use these calls to explore where a candidate might best fit, rather than pigeonholing them into a certain position. A candidate might have applied for a certain job, but through an exploratory approach, recruiters can refer them to a position that better aligns with what the candidate is seeking. If candidates are interested in a position that isn’t open at the time, they’re kept in the pipeline for consideration later on.

Additionally, by focusing on the company’s strong organizational culture and reputation within their industry, recruiters can excite candidates about joining the company instead of “just focusing on ‘maybe this is not my ideal job, but I’d like to just get in at some level with an organization that is in a high-growth environment,’ ” Alaimo said.

University of Memphis’ Allen said recruiters should focus on the positive attributes of a job. For example, some might find driving freight boring and lonely, while others might enjoy a job where they’re alone with time to themselves. Companies can also sell something bigger than the job itself, such as a trucking company saying that “our drivers keep the economy moving,” or “our drivers keep America moving.”

Allen also suggested using recruitment advertising, where companies have to identify the attributes of a product or service that will appeal to a targeted population. In the area where he lives, for example, there are casinos with many entry-level jobs. In advertising for these jobs, Allen said he has seen the casinos emphasize a fun working environment and fun culture.

“Shift the focus from the specific job tasks to what a great organization it is to work for,” he said.

Additional benefits can also be a perk to encourage people to take the gig. Waste Management Inc. offers a competitive job benefits package plus relocation benefits for regions that are hard to fill. Similar benefits are also given when an internal employee accepts a new position within the company, said Charlotte Cantu, the company’s director of talent acquisition.

Veterans are also sought out, making up 7 percent of Waste Management’s new hires in the United States in 2013. These hires possess transferable skills, such as transportation, vehicle maintenance and construction experience, Cantu said, which “allow them to do well within WM’s environment.”  

“Generally, veterans also work well in a team environment and possess the work ethic we seek in an employee,” Cantu said. “Leadership experience is fairly common among veterans, so that is important, as we are always seeking to strengthen leadership at over 1,100 locations in North America.”

Emphasize Training

Allen said research shows that when people first start a job, there’s a lot of uncertainty automatically built into that experience. “Anything that you can do when they first start to really help people adjust to the new work environment … will make it more likely that they’re going to stick around past that early stage where lots of people drop out,” he said.

With technology and HR software becoming increasingly popular, it’s easier than ever to make onboarding and training more efficient. However, Allen said onboarding should be kept social so new hires can make connections with peers who are also starting out new. By planning group activities for training sessions, workers can more easily build those connections needed in a new job.

Once the onboarding process is over and the employee has been working with the company, dirty job retention becomes the next step.

Although Redwood Logistics doesn’t use this practice, Alaimo said she has seen other companies use retention bonuses to retain talent. She said Redwood doesn’t adopt this practice because of the fear that employees will bolt shortly after taking the bonus. However, while not explicitly in the form of a retention bonus, other performance-based rewards can be effective in low-demand jobs.

Eddie Lou, CEO and founder of Shiftgig, an online community for service and hospitality jobs, said performance-based rewards can be a good incentive to retain workers. This bonus could be based on milestones such as hours worked or tasks accomplished. “You’re really aligning the worker’s incentives with that of the business,” Lou said.

Lou also advised companies create an environment in which workers can give feedback. “Oftentimes, when workers are able to express their opinions and share their frustrations by having a supervisor or some kind of platform where they can be heard, is a very valuable thing,” he said. “The worker should have the right to be heard.”

Training is another valuable tool that helps both the employee and the business. Waste Management offers training for current drivers and those who are interested in pursuing a future driving position. Also, the company’s operations management training program trains current employees and attracts external candidates who would be interested in a management role.

Additionally, Cantu said Waste Management offers a technician apprentice program and military technician apprentice program that provides on-the-job training to those in trade schools. In addition to that real-world practice, “upon graduation, WM will provide benefits to participants that could include tuition reimbursement, part-time job opportunities while still in school and tool/equipment reimbursement,” Cantu said.

Aside from training, promotion of talent can also encourage lower attrition rates. “Make sure there’s a career path at every level for different types of employees,” Lou said. These can be promotions or the ability to transfer departments and gain additional skills.

Internal promotions have helped Redwood Logistics retain talent. To keep people engaged and looking to the future, Alaimo said the company focuses on career development and new opportunities. People need to see upward mobility, even if it isn’t immediate. Even if there’s a particular role in which an employee shows interest, management can talk to them about potential opportunities that are coming up.

 “It’s an ongoing conversation I think that you need to have with those employees about what’s next on the horizon so they don’t feel like ‘I’m stuck in this role forever,’ ” Alaimo said, adding that it is important to be transparent with employees about what would be required of them for the next role.