One of the highlights of my role is the privilege of getting to know Members like Eric Airola. A former Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, Airola is no stranger to leadership and dedication – traits he has carried with him to his current position as Senior Director of Human Resources at J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc. and Board Member at DirectEmployers Association.

By his own admission, people who don’t know him would probably think he’s an uptight HR guy and a stickler for the rules. But I quickly discovered he has a great sense of humor as he told the story about how he landed at J.B. Hunt. The following interview is from our last Annual Meeting and Conference.

Nancy: Tell me where you’re from and why it’s unique.

Eric: We’re based in Northwest Arkansas, which is kind of like a state within a state. It’s where Walmart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt are all located. The University of Arkansas is there. Demographically, probably about 200,000 folks live there, and we kind of see ourselves as one group. We actually market that part of the state as well and try to get people to move there for great jobs, economic viability and because it’s just a great place to live. Look us up – you’ll find it one of the top 10 places to live in the country.

Nancy: And what do you do at J.B. Hunt?

Eric: I’m the Senior Director of Human Resources, which kind of says a lot, but my group is over all the non-driver recruiting. We’re a transportation company so about 70% of our employees are actual truck drivers. My side of the house recruits everybody that doesn’t drive a truck – the support folks, operations, sales, managers – we do that part. I’m also over all the HR client managers, so we’re the business partners that work with our operating groups and help them with strategic HR decisions that include recruitment, staffing and sourcing.

Nancy: When did you start with the company?

Eric: I started with J.B. Hunt right out of the Marine Corps. I was a captain in the Marines and had never been to Arkansas. I had not had anything to do with transportation, honestly. Big trucks were kind of a hindrance to get around on the highways as far as I was concerned, but I had a friend whose name is John Blease Hunt, which is also J.B. Hunt. I ran into a J.B. Hunt recruiter and told them, “Hey, I know J.B. Hunt. He’s a good friend of mine.” I was obviously pulling his cord but, one thing led to another and I got a phone call from the company. They had huge growth in the ‘80’s – (2200%), so I came out to Lowell [Arkansas] and actually met the real Mr. Hunt. He looked me up and down and he said, “Well, he won’t need a haircut and his shoes are shined… I guess he’ll do.” So I moved the family to Arkansas and found out that Arkansas was a pretty great place to live, and we’ve never left.

I started off in logistics and went through what a lot of folks coming out of the military or college would experience in our manager training program, and did logistics for several years. Then I transitioned over to something that I really had a passion for, which was training. That kind of led into growth and job enlargement and enrichment into different positions where ultimately I went over into the human resources side and directed the training group and then benefits, then moved into my current position. I think I’ve seen a lot of the operational and HR functions side of J.B. Hunt and have a really good understanding of what we do.

Nancy: What do you like to brag about with regard to the company and recruitment?

Eric: We do a lot of things really well at J.B. Hunt. I think if I was to say we’re the best transportation logistics company, you might argue with me for just a little bit, but when you start looking at it, we really see ourselves as differentiating from the pack in six areas. I won’t go into all of them, but I’ll focus on my area, which is people. We have a lot of innovators at J.B. Hunt. You know, our company was founded by a person who only made it to 8th grade. He was a truck driver for 21 years, but the guy was brilliant. He came up with an idea for packaging rice hulls, which are the husks of rice, and he sold those to poultry farmers, which there are a lot in Arkansas, and really got that going. He was a great sales person. That led him into a truck line, and that led into all different kinds of businesses.

When people look at J.B. Hunt, they try to put us into a category, “Well you’re an over the road trucking company, or you’re a logistics company.” We are, but we do all those things. Actually, our most profitable group is intermodal, where we put containers that separate from the chassis onto trains. With the down economy and the post-recession that we’re having right now, that’s been hugely profitable. It’s our biggest profit driver, even though they only have 3,000 drivers, which, in our company, is not really huge because we have so many drivers.

There are a lot of people at J.B. Hunt that aren’t afraid to try things, or as Mr. Hunt would say, “They’re not afraid to get too close to the stove.” They’re not afraid they’re going to get burned and if they do get burned, they learn something about it and they try something different. I think that’s what sets J.B. Hunt apart and what we look for when we go out and try to find people who want to make a home in our company.

Nancy: What have been some of the pay-offs of being aligned with DirectEmployers?

Eric: At first it was really just to be in compliance and get those job postings out there on the heels of America’s Job Bank going away, but we’ve found that there’s a lot more than that. We started hearing terms like search engine optimization and metrics and finding out how we get the most bang for our buck or work with our applicant tracking system and other groups and either hold them accountable or get the most out of what we’re putting in. There are a lot of [Member] resources that we use and things we are still learning. When we are getting into areas we don’t know enough about, we can tap into the staff or the 600 other employers in the Association, so, it’s been a great partnership for us.

A very special thanks to Eric Airola for taking the time to participate in this interview. You might also be interested in Eric’s helpful resume advice as part of the Social Jobs Partnership.

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