Driver Shortage, What Driver Shortage?

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Almost a month has passed since the Conference Board of Canada delivered a eye-opening report on the looming driver shortage. Within seven years, by 2020, Canada could have a deficit of 30,000 truck drivers, it crowed. It also warned that this almost-certain eventuality will hit the Canadian economy hard. We approach, or are in the throes of, a bubble of aging middle-age professional drivers ready to retire any day now, and young people just aren’t interested in picking up the mantle. Whatever strategies shippers and carriers can think of–double 53s; 60.5 foot trailers, and enhanced intermodal services—won’t be enough to mitigate the labour shortages (and potentially empty store shelves) that seem imminent.

The report made headlines in newspapers across Canada and news spots on national television. OTA and CTA chief David Bradley pontificated, wrote an essay, and supplied sound bites. But that was three weeks ago, and I assume the public, with its 20 second attention span, has forgotten all about it. Really the only thing that would bring the crisis home would be empty store shelves and shortages of consumer goods. The OTA can commission reports until it’s blue in the face, and the response would still be lukewarm at best.

Really the trucking industry is still treading water. Some indicators point to the beast waiting to be unleashed, just waiting for a chance to throttle up, but that hasn’t happened yet. Just the opposite in some cases. Muirs Cartage dumping their company drivers was one contra-indicator. Owner operator fleets return higher margins for trucking companies, because they don’t have to worry about payroll, compensation, or safety and compliance for their hires.

But company drivers are often indispensable to a successful operation. These are the drivers that shuttle the trailers, make the pick ups and get the equipment in place so the brokers can make a livelihood. Just the fact that Muirs encouraged their former drivers to go to a driver service agency so they could rehire them, tells you how important this division is. Evidently, this company is not willing to keep these drivers on payroll but is willing to pay a premium to a driver leasing agency for the same work.

My experience with driver agencies has been mixed. The freedom I expected in picking and choosing my assignments was quickly dashed. If you worked out at a customer, they would want you in every day, with very little notice. I even tried keeping a couple of agencies in my back pocket, but it was a little like juggling multiple girlfriends.

But overall things seem to be getting a little better from a drivers’ perspective. Current layoffs seem to be balanced by an upswing in hiring in some sectors. I saw an ad from a major cement supplier and was almost tempted to pick up the phone. These are often great union jobs, only require a DZ licence and are extremely lucrative when you count up the overtime. Of course you start at the bottom of the pile, get all the sloppy jobs and have to work weekends, bu the paychecks can be astounding. Then you get laid off in the winter and you might expect visits from Harper’s EI inspectors, wondering why you won’t take the $15 per hour for a job up in Parry Sound, actually you better take it or we’ll cut off your benefits. Really, I’m too old to go messing around in muddy construction sites, and I’ve got a pretty good go right now. But really the temptation is there. Like auto haulers, you’ll make way more than the average freight carrier, if your timing is right.

So getting back to the mythological driver shortage, I’m not going to trot out the tired cliches like, if they paid enough there would be no problem (yeah, sure, but they don’t); there is no driver shortage, just a lack of good drivers (ok, so what? some drivers are better than others that’s always been the case).

So getting back to reality, how do we fix the problem? Well, besides building an industry classroom trailer that we can take around to schools, malls, reserves, community centres, etc, that would showcase hands-on exhibits, history and the intricacies and importance of this great profession (you might remember some people worked very hard on this concept a few years ago, and the industry players weren’t interested in stepping up to the plate), my other favourite strategy is hiring excellent workers off-shore. I know this wrankles certain Canadian-born drivers but their point is moot. If you’re kids don’t want to drive big trucks there are plenty of qualified, good people who will do so, given the opportunity.

These are great drivers who are pre-screened, pre-tested and anxious to get a foot-hold in this great country. The following article, republished from the Jamaican Gleaner on January 27/13(sent to me by a force-fully laid-off Muirs Driver), highlights how important this group is to a profession that fails to inspire the indigenous populace. There are excellent drivers waiting to fill these positions just waiting to get the chance. Needless to say, these men and women, make excellent employees, fabulous immigrants and terrific citizens. Give them a chance!

Byron Buckley, Associate Editor – Special Projects
At 2 a.m., Dilwick Williams climbs into the cab of a 30-wheeler double trailer to begin a 12-hour ride from Fort McMurray, Alberta, transporting goods for Trimac Transportation Services. He is about to journey several hundred kilometers across Canada in snowy, icy conditions.
“MTI [Mountain Transport Institute] prepared us mentally for this job. They exposed us to everything during the two weeks of training,” explained Williams, one of 55 truck drivers from Jamaica hired by Canadian transportation firms last summer. Upon arrival in Canada, they were prepared by Mountain Transport Institute (MTI) to write the driver’s licensing examination.
“As all the drivers have been pre-screened in Jamaica and studied hard to prepare for trucking in Canada, we have maintained 100 per cent success in them attaining their Canadian licences,” reported Andy Roberts, president of MTI Ltd. “As the drivers adjust to Canadian expectations, including arriving five minutes early for classes, they become very good, dedicated students.”
Jamaican driver Napthali Peterkin pointed out that his employer (Trimac) gave him additional training in ‘winter ride’ – how to manoeuvre the truck in snowy conditions. “When you leave MTI, there is an in-house driver-training programme that you are taken through for a few days to learn the Trimac policy and culture,” he said.
adaptable professionals
Trimac, a leading transportation company in North America, “invests a significant amount of time and energy orienting and training new employees to its culture and standards to ensure they understand clearly what is expected”, according to Les Rozander, recruiting director for Trimac Canada. “Our Jamaican hires have proven to be adaptable and team-oriented professionals that have assimilated into Trimac’s culture with ease.”
Although they are from a different culture and less developed country than Canada, the Jamaican drivers have fitted in like cogs in a wheel.
“We are provided with brand new equipment – 2010 models are the oldest trucks in the fleet,” testified Kobre Campbell, who drives for Atlantic Diversified Transportation Systemsout of Debert, Nova Scotia. “They treat us really well. We are just like part of the family.”
Richard Singh, who traverses the hilly terrains of British Columbia in snow, is thankful that the trucks are in good condition. “The challenge is with snow or ice on the hill. Going up or coming down is a challenge. Sometimes you have to chain the tires, mostly to get up the hill. But the trucks are good to go and there is no fear of them breaking down,” he said.
Singh notes that at DCT Chambers Trucking Ltd, where he is employed, “you are pretty much left on your own to carry out the job and are not pressured in any way”. He contacts his supervisors only if a problem develops with the truck.
safeguard against fatigue
After 12 hours of driving, he hands the vehicle over to another driver and takes a mandatory break of at least 10 hours before starting another shift. Upon completion of 70 hours in seven days total, Singh will take a 36-hour break from driving. This rule helps commercial drivers to operate their vehicles safely, without becoming fatigued.
According to recruiting firm HireProDrivers, Canada is experiencing an unprecedented shortage of qualified professional truck (trailer) drivers as its workforce continues to age and drivers retire. The recruiting firm is seeking to help 300 foreign drivers transition into jobs in Canada in 2013 and fully expects that number to grow next year.
There were anxious moments for the drivers during the recruitment process. It started in Jamaica early last year, when they responded to an announcement by the Ministry of Labour seeking experienced truck drivers to fill positions in Canada. “The processing time was a bit long. However, I understand that the Canadian government must do its due diligence to protect the integrity of the system. The recruiters did their best,” Singh said. “But the investment in our driver training, evaluation and academic support is worth it. While we had shortage of work in Jamaica, there is always work here.”
HireProDrivers said the process took a considerable time as it was necessary to upgrade the drivers’ academic standards before potential employers in Canada would accept them.
With the anxious moments now behind him, Peterkin is pleased that “we are receiving top-of-the-line treatment, compared to media reports of how other foreign workers elsewhere in Canada are treated”.
At 2 p.m. Dilwick Williams completes his 12-hour shift. He remembers when he arrived in cold Canada last November, “being so far from warm and sunny Jamaica, at first I wondered if I had made the right decision”.
“Today I have no regrets,” he said.

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Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.

With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude.

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  • Always the voice of common sense Harry. Much appreciated. It should get interesting as the career guys retire and the “driver shortage” takes hold. I will “hate to say I told you so” when the reality sets in.
    The Jamaican connection is a great part of the story. Been there many times, love the people, good natured, no pressure, and lots would love the opportunity to come here and earn a living. I see a bit of a snag with this particular culture though. Once we bury them in rules, drive them round the bend with our gotta go mentality then put them in the deep freeze for a few years, the land of sun and sand may start to look awfully good again. All the best Harry!

  • Harry you can make great wages with overtime delivering redi-mix, being home every night.
    I submit long haul drivers should be paid even more.
    Greater demands on your time away from family.
    Yet the pay for long haul for the most part doesn”t come close at many
    Shortage implies higher cost for a given commodity.
    So if a driver shortage should ever manifest its self higher wages will
    solve that problem.

  • Harry, there is NO driver shortage in this country. Have you ever heard of freight being left behind on a dock because there is no driver available to move it? Doesn’t happen. What there is, is a shortage of drivers willing to work under substandard conditions for substandard rates of pay. The OTA and its members can whine all they want about driver shortages. It is laughable to hear that garbage from them, as they are the ones responsible for it and are the only ones who can correct the so-called problem. Improve working conditions, treat the drivers like human beings and not animals, and pay what the job is worth, and you will have people standing in line waiting for a driving job.

  • I remember Late 80s early 90s GM Oshawa needed a few hundred people.
    They had 10s of thousands of people apply form all over Canada.
    Pay good and no shortage of people who will want to work for you.

    Thats a hint ….Do not need a recruitment department, pay well people will
    line up to beg for jobs..

  • I think the conclusion of the report was that there is an impending driver shortage on the horizon. For-Hire drivers have been through some cycles of supply and demand. But even in lean times there are always trucks to be driven, But I think this next wave will hit the industry hard. Who knows, just when the economy starts to gain traction there’s some other trauma cropping up that’s impeding a cog in the works. It’s not a shortage yet, but traditionally wages do go up a bit when capacity is stretched. Value-added trucking might where it’s at. Wanna stand around in a snowmobile suit delivering or pumping some outrageous chemical or waste sludge into a tanker? How bout those guys who do the dead stock rendering, how much do they pay them? And I agree, MeSlipperyOne, good companies that pay top rate don’t need recruiting departments.

  • Im the only one in my truck school class who could find a job. I work part time hours. I have contacted every trucking company that works in my area. I refuse to throw my family under the bus and be gone 36 weeks a year, but that is virtually the only way to get into the business. There is no trucker shortage, there is only a shortage of people who will abandon their families. My real life experience has been its virtually impossible to get a job in trucking in Ontario. The trucker shortage is bs.

    • David,
      All I need to say is, “Go West young man!”. Calgary/Edmonton—min $21/hr local. $0.48/mile min single driver on the HWY. Decent 3PL’s will offer $20/hr just to drive a 5 tonne locally. Hours? You will max out your hours if you wish.

  • There is no premium payed for line haul or cross border drives and there you will find the priority in shortages. In most cases, the local driver can trump the wages of the line haul guy so the incentive isn’t there. This is where the job postings are so this must be where the shortage is . I look at those cement driver jobs long and hard also and have been offered up to $30 per hour to drive dump. It’s very tempting to take the fat vacation pay at Christmas and then to work for a temp agency for 3 months till the season starts up a gain or the consistency of doing Kingston switches. After drivers cut their teeth doing the long haul dance, they usually settle in to something easier or more lucrative in the civilized world. It will always be this way until the premium for putting it out there is stepped up. The lifestyle is obvious to young Canadians kids who have never seen hard times and thus, the drive isn’t there.

  • Harry,
    Good insight into the dilemma of “quality and quantity”, indicative of the transportation industry in Canada.

    It is naive to believe that all things will “work out in the end” unless we are proactive, now. My driver pool is getting older: retirement is looming–deservedly so. I will need to replace 20% of my talent in the next 5 years and recruiting from other companies and agencies is not the answer. The industry needs to REALLY get going on this, now. Solid training and hiring initiatives, that go beyond what Mr. Flaherty has tabled in his ho-hum budget, are needed. I want to see the return of the “Professional Driver” that was so typical of the industry when I started in the 80’s. That person was proud, confident, and a solid representative of the industry. We can’t bring those specific people back, but we can certainly re-image our vocation.

    The younger generation seem less interested in securing a full time job as a truck driver and more interested in their Facebook status.

    Calgary, AB

  • Harry, excellent article, here is a possible solution to the problem. Someone should lobby the government of Canada for funding of not only driver training , but also making it much easier for a driver to become an owner operator. Follow the example of Prime inc. If a driver has his own business he sets his own revenue and own lifestyle etc.I live in a small city in Nova Scotia and when there was a shortage of wheelchair accessable taxis the city gave anyone $10,000 towards buying a wheelchair accessable van. Many went into the business. Large companies or owners of several trucks could do the same. Give potential driver,s a chance to become owners, but make it easy financially for them to want to enter the industry.Down payments could be made to the lease companies,for trucks or to large companies who are willing to set someone up in their own business. Large companies could also put on courses for the new driver,s on book keeping, Maintenance, shops etc. Prime inc. does this for their driver,s they also have rooms for their driver;s to stay in free when in the area. Lease options could be set up for any period of time. Their are many options as to how the program could be set up. But the bottom line is the driver who is now the owner operator must be able to see the fruits of his labour, in revenue be able to buy a home raise a family have a vacation etc. Companies could share the revenues, with the now owner ops. This would keep the both countries,moving the cross border freight we both so desperatley need. The spirit of entrepeneurship. Tony

  • I’m a late boomer who has lived a life of learning and adventure. I have all types of education from vocational to college to university and more; and I’ve had all kinds of jobs from menial and easy to crazy and dangerous to professional and stressful. I had a mid-life crisis and bought a good used highway tractor and now I’m running long-haul to see the country, sometimes with my wife along for the ride. My costs have been lower than with a new truck and my fuel economy has been excellent, yet my effective hourly income has been pathetic. Some people think I’m making big bucks because I made over $60,000 last year, but I worked the equivalent of two full-time jobs without any time off to achieve that. And, it’s a job that not everyone can do – it requires a lot of smarts, a lot of hard work and sacrifice, and a willingness to face a lot of financial risk and physical danger. In all my broad experience, I’ve never seen such a mistreated class of workers as long-haul owner-operators. Corporate executives with no conscience and multi-million dollar pay packages encourage their ambitious underlings in management to do the bare minimum to keep their employees content and to squeeze every penny that they can out of their owner-operators, often expecting them to work for nothing. Trucking firms write contracts that protect their profits while passing expenses and risk down to the owner-operators. The executives further milk the system by working up the “driver shortage” scare so that Joe Public is less alarmed when trucking firms get concessions from governments to bring in foreign workers who work for cheap. Governments still take the easy way out in their regulations by making the drivers responsible for far more than the drivers have true control over, with financial and other consequences for often minor issues that can wipe a guy out when he is actually doing the best that he can. Sadly, most drivers are far too busy trying to pay their bills to have any time to try and improve their lot in life. The only way that drivers – whether employees or self-employed – will see their working conditions improve will be to organize and lobby to have their representatives in government take steps to make driving a recognized profession, to introduce laws to bring about better pay and treatment, and to bring an end to over regulation and a start to reasonableness.

  • I agree with 99% of the comments. Norm E, nailed it when he talked about driving being the equivalent of two jobs. I don’t however, like the idea of Government involvement, other than doing away with the overtime exemption when it comes to federally regulated carriers. Overtime is mandatory in most other professions, and should be mandatory in trucking as well. I realize that differentiating overtime between drivers and owner/ops could be a nightmare. But then maybe better compensation packages to owner/ops could improve to help offset the long work week.

    We hear lots of stories about foreign drivers coming here and doing quite well, similar to the example Harry spoke of. There are also plenty of people that pack up and go home, because the experience wasn’t as rosy as the recruiters claimed it would be.

    Most people in Canada make a living on a 40 hour work week.

    Some of these job might look like a win-fall to people that come from countries with poor economies, such as Jamaica.