Our industry’s people problems are global in scope

It’s incredible what can be learned at trucking conferences. Bring together decision makers at the highest levels, as the American Trucking Associations does at its annual Management Conference & Exhibition, and there are few industry issues that can’t be overcome. I’ve always been impressed with the leaders in this industry and their willingness to share knowledge for the greater good.

Sometimes, however, issues are just too significant to be overcome at a management conference. Discussions around those issues, however, can yield new ideas, or at the very least, an acknowledgement of a problem that needs to be universally recognized before it can be fixed.

One such problem is the trucking industry’s inability to attract new driving talent. Whether or not you want to call it a driver shortage, or a shortage of good-paying driving jobs, the end result is the same. There aren’t enough people doing the work the trucking industry needs done. Simple.

But a discussion at MC&E revealed the problem is much broader in scope than we may have realized. Even China has a driver shortage, according to Radu Dinescu, president of world transport organization IRU. So does Eastern Europe. Mexico, too. Ramon Madrano Ibarra, president of CANACAR Mexico, said his country is short about 54,000 truck drivers.

That’s nearly twice as bad as it is here in Canada, where the latest Trucking HR Canada Labour Market Snapshot indicated there are about 28,000 unfilled truck driving jobs. Every country experiencing the issue has taken various – often similar – approaches to fixing it. In the U.S., a pilot program allowing 18-year-old drivers to operate across state borders has been floated as a potential solution.

magnet attracting people
(Illustration: iStock)

But Rob Penner, CEO of Winnipeg-based Bison Transport, noted no such restrictions exist in Canada. He got his own commercial licence at 18, others have done the same, and yet young people still aren’t flocking to the trucking industry to fill the void.

Each panelist stressed the need to make the job more glamorous, or highly regarded by the general public. The time for that is now, stressed Derek Leathers, chairman, president and CEO of Werner Enterprises, noting the Covid pandemic elevated the rank and image of essential professional truck drivers.

“It’s incumbent on us as industry leaders to carry that forward and not let that fade away,” he said. “These are great jobs, with great earning potential and lots of opportunities to build a family around if we give [drivers] the right tools to do that work and do it safely.”

But has that horse already left the barn? Ask a pro driver today how appreciated and valued they feel by shippers, receivers, motorists and their employers, and you’ll get your answer.

Another challenge that’s seen the world over is an inability to make the job appealing to women, who represent nearly half the overall workforce. Werner has had more success than most in this area, with women making up about 13% of its driving force. Women in the fleet as a whole have better safety records, are on time more often, and incur less damage to equipment. Yet no one has found the key to attracting women to the profession in any great numbers.

Younger drivers. Female drivers. Immigration. These are all potential pools of truck drivers we’ve had mixed results in attracting, right across the planet. Panelists agreed there’s no one single solution to solving the driver shortage, whether in Canada, China or Mexico.

As Leathers said, the takeaway is “It’s not a geographic issue. Whether we like it or not, it’s a job issue. It’s the work itself and we have to find ways to make that work more rewarding. We have a long way to go to get that message out there and make that message clear.”

Certainly, that’s not the takeaway anyone wanted. Unfortunately, the panel left us without any magic bullet solutions. Just a greater understanding that our industry’s people issues are not ours alone. They’re far bigger than we thought and global in scope.

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James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 20 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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