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.
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.
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. All posts by Harry Rudolfs