After years of pandemic-related labor disruptions, executives at major waste and recycling companies said during this month’s WasteExpo that their workforce challenges have begun to ease somewhat in 2023.
Yet the industry was struggling to keep driver and technician roles filled before the pandemic started and that is expected to remain an issue for years to come. Throughout the conference’s investor summit and other sessions, leaders from companies and trade groups highlighted new recruitment efforts, training investments and greater industry exposure as ways to see sustained improvement.
Multiple companies said annual wage inflation rates have begun to settle, though at higher levels than the historical 3% seen pre-pandemic. For Casella Waste Systems, wage inflation recently began to flatten around 5% after growing for eight or nine quarters, and CFO Ned Coletta said "our labor force is the most stable it's been in several years, our turnover has been coming down."
WM Chief Operating Officer John Morris described higher wages and benefits as “table stakes” and said his company continues to look for ways to improve recruitment and retention rates as a matter of necessity.
"If you just look at the stratification of the workforce now, of who occupies our key frontline roles and the age of those folks, it's just math at some point they're going to end up leaving the workforce,” said Morris, noting that investments in automation and technology may help extend careers but won’t be the only answer. "Traditionally this industry has had folks out the front door saying, ‘Hey, I want to come work in this industry or for your company.’ That has clearly changed.”
Leaders from multiple companies talked about efforts to ramp up their recruiting tactics and get new people into the sector. One priority is to create career paths and training opportunities, but speakers also said that each prospective employee’s preferences may differ.
WIN Waste Innovations CEO Bob Boucher said that in his New England market there has been an increasing move among construction companies and competing trucking sectors to pay workers as subcontractors, rather than employees. This means they can potentially earn a higher wage because “some people aren’t as interested in benefits.”
Coming from another angle, WM CEO Jim Fish said pay is also not always the deciding factor for younger generations.
"The question is how do you encourage a Gen Z [applicant] to drive a truck? Part of it can be compensation, but even at today's compensation levels it's hard to attract people to some of these jobs,” said Fish, adding in a separate session that when he was entering the white collar workforce he wanted as many hours as possible — which is not the case for some newer applicants.
Waste Connections CEO Ron Mittelstaedt said his company struggled with a turnover rate of around 20% last year. While it has begun to see improvements, the retention levels are not yet where he wants them to be, and one of the biggest challenges may go beyond wages and benefits.
“Eight to 10 years ago, when you hired a driver they wanted 55 to 60 hours a week,” he said. “Today, I would say half the drivers want 40 to 42. It’s a completely different approach of what the expectations are.”
Mittelstaedt suggested one option that would be difficult — but could become more viable over time — would be split work schedules where drivers can do part of their route early in the morning, go home and then come back to finish the route. Some companies have experimented with four-day workweeks as well.
Stericycle CEO Cindy Miller said her company could consider shifting some trucks to smaller sizes that wouldn’t require a commercial drivers’ license, though given the specific nature of her operation the demands are already different. Because Stericycle primarily services medical and office buildings, “we are specifically defined to the business hours of the customers we engage” and drivers generally don’t need to work longer or later hours.
GFL Environmental CEO Patrick Dovigi said that competing with delivery companies has been hard in recent years, given the perception that “being a last-mile driver was better than being a waste driver" due to less physical labor and cleaner vehicles. He also said that improving recruitment and retention often comes down to identifying the desires of people in a given location.
For some, the top priority might be safety. For others it might be new gloves or better uniforms. Dovigi said GFL recently worked with Syntas to develop a uniform for women, which hadn’t existed before, and suggested that focusing on creating a better employment experience for women — who in some cases may only comprise 2-3% of a company’s frontline workforce — could make a big difference.
"By and large we just have to continue coming up with different ways to retain drivers and attract them to this industry,” he said.
Training and opportunities
Another common theme was about finding new ways to access younger labor pools and investing in training.
Robin Wiener, president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, said her trade group started piloting a Sustainability Pathways Program last year to facilitate internships at member companies. This involved partnerships with trade schools and historically Black colleges and universities. Wiener said the group has also been working with nonprofits and recently helped two Ukrainian refugees land jobs as an electrician and a CDL driver.
"I recognize that problem and we're trying to figure out ways to make those connections because we have to do more,” said Wiener.
Companies such as WM and Casella noted how they’ve shifted the minimum driver age to 18, down from 21. While 18-year-old drivers can’t cross state lines, Casella has found success in creating a new apprentice role for them to work locally and then advance.
"40% of the kids coming out of high school are not going on to college. We need to attract as many of them as we can to our industry and we can give them a career without a $100,000 or $200,000 worth of debt,” said CEO John Casella.
WM, Waste Pro and multiple other companies said they already have their own CDL training schools — or contract out for those services, like WIN Waste. Rumpke Waste & Recycling has its own training program as well, which the company said is an important element in addition to showing prospective career paths.
"We want to give the employee an opportunity to grow their career, better their lives and become part of our family,” said CEO Bill Rumpke Jr.
Casella’s CDL training school, which it started two years ago, has seen 150 people graduate to date. Coletta noted that women are graduating from the school at an especially high rate. Next month, the company plans to launch its first maintenance technician school.
Republic Services launched its own technician school in 2021 as a way to bolster the pipeline for a job that CEO Jon Vander Ark described as a “major issue” in terms of recruitment. Because at least some amount of maintenance work needs to happen on a second shift, it can be hard to compete with other employers.
"Our pay plans struggle to keep up with the passenger car side, the John Deeres or the [Caterpillars] of the world,” he said.
Mittelstaedt cited his experience as a board member for ExpressJet Airlines, where recruiting pilots is considered even harder than drivers, and said the solution has been for the airline to directly purchase its own training schools. Going forward, that is considered a model for Waste Connections.
”We own our own training today and we're going to own our own schools,” he said, adding that it will take even more work to ensure retention rates are high too. "We've gotta figure out why they're leaving and become an employer of choice.”
Telling the story
The need to change perceptions of the industry was also a stand-out topic in labor discussions.
"For many, many years this industry operated quietly in the background, in the alleyways,” said Don Ross, chairman of the National Waste & Recycling Association’s board of trustees, who described promoting the industry’s narrative as one of his top priorities. “We are the only industry that has a truck drive on every road in this country at least once a week. We are the most visible public utility and we have to tell that story."
John Casella also noted that while the industry used to try and “stay out of the newspapers” it must now be more proactive because that will “be a factor in terms of attracting people to our industry.”
Fish said that rather than being motivated by money he sees younger people “motivated by an ideology” and "a lot of times the ideology is the environment.” This has prompted an intentional shift in the company’s messaging, including rebranding to take “waste” out of its name, and CFO Devina Rankin said she’s heartened that “the things that today's high school students care about are things that we are really invested in."
Multiple CEOs noted that their own younger kids or others in their social circles show little interest in the waste industry, but there was also general optimism about what lies ahead.
"The perception of being a garbage man is not a great thing,” said Dovigi. “At the end of the day there’s many of our drivers that are making substantially more than my friends’ kids that are working for an investment bank, for example, and working way more hours. This is a good industry. It's going to be here for a long time.”
Disclosure: WasteExpo is run by Informa, the owner of Waste Dive’s publisher, Industry Dive. Informa has no influence over Waste Dive’s coverage.