Solving the truck driver shortage is an investment in Canada

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The Canadian economy moves by truck, or, more accurately – by the women and men who are Canada’s dedicated truck drivers. There’s one problem, though. There are many fewer truck drivers than there used to be – at a time when our economy needs them most.

The Canadian trucking industry has over 23,000 truck driver job vacancies right now and that hole is expected to sink deeper very soon – to 55,000 vacancies by 2024. While there are undoubtably many industry sectors that need qualified labour, the vacancy rate in truck transportation was much higher than that of the general economy (8% compared to 5.4%) and represents the second highest vacancy rate of any sector in the entire economy. However, with an economic multiplier effect much larger than most industries, the pressures weighing down trucking’s current labour pool just might be the single greatest wildcard in the path to full economic recovery.

Two multi-ethnic truck drivers, a senior Hispanic man in his 60s and a mid-adult African-American woman in her 30s, standing in front of a fleet of semi-trucks or tractor-trailers. The man is holding a clipboard and they are conversing, looking at each other face to face.
(Photo: iStock)

When looking at the supply chain from a macro level, the picture is the same. Recent data relating to truck-to-load ratios shows between a 30%-45% decrease in the availability of trucks, year-to-year, while load volumes have more than tripled at times. As a result of these two factors, the number of trucks available per load has declined from about three trucks per load a year ago, to around 0.5-0.7 trucks per load today. In other words, almost one in every two available freight loads don’t have a truck (driver) for transport. What happens to those loads? Well, naturally, they sit – until a driver becomes available; but, then, some other load in the supply chain will have to sit on a dock and not get delivered. And so on.

This immense strain on the supply chain is reflected in a litany of recent news and government reports. For example, in the Bank of Canada’s most recent Business Outlook Survey for the first quarter of 2022, the very first line in the report reads: “… labour-related capacity constraints and supply chain challenges remain widespread.” The report goes on to detail the many firms that report capacity pressures related to labour or supply chain challenges are at a record high. Meanwhile, many industry sectors – auto parts manufacturers, major grocers, and agriculture farmers, among them – have expressed publicly to government committees that the truck driver shortage is not a challenge relegated to the trucking industry – but instead, a major predicament reverberating throughout the entire economy. The consequences for many businesses that rely on consistent transportation services and just-in-time delivery include major cost increases of up to 30%, inventory bottlenecks, manufacturing disruptions, and risks to national food security.

The international cross-border vaccine mandate in both Canada and the U.S. in early 2022 certainly exacerbated the shortage somewhat, but also shifted the balance between international and domestic capacity. Notably, a percentage of drivers that left Canada-US freight lanes because of the border vaccine mandate are now operating domestically. Therefore, the economic and operational impact of a potential domestic vaccine mandate will be markedly larger than the effect the cross-border policy had as those drivers who shifted will now be forced to completely exit the federally regulated sector. While it remains unclear whether the Federal Government will proceed with a domestic vaccine mandate for trucking companies, there are still several other policies and labour code reforms currently being considered which will have similar impacts and stress on the industry and supply chain.

What is undeniable is that driver shortage concerns are top of mind across Canada, not just for the trucking industry, but for all types of businesses throughout the supply chain. Meanwhile, the costs and consequences of these supply constraints have flowed into the retail sector and have not gone unnoticed by Canadians. According to Nanos Research, 83% of Canadians indicated some level of concern over the difficulty to get goods because the supply chain is under stress. And that was early last winter – prior to any mandates and well before the worst of the driver shortage. The concern among Canadians was consistent throughout the country and highest in the Prairies at (88.2%), where the agricultural sector plays a critical role. CTA has partnered with Nanos Research to update many of these findings in May 2022.

While government decisions and policy direction will play a massive role in alleviating the shortage during these critical years ahead of us, the industry must also do its part. Industry leaders have worked hard at modernizing the profession, increasing investments in human resource support and infrastructure, and offering competitive wages and benefits with other relatable sectors. To highlight many of these qualities and opportunities as well as showcase some of the amazing people who make our industry great, the Canadian Trucking Alliance and dozens of industry partners recently launched the largest public relations social media campaign in our industry’s history. The campaign – which is aimed at young people as they embark on new career paths – consists of inspirational and aspirational messages while highlighting the opportunities and innovations throughout the industry.

It’s undeniable, however, that if we hope to attract and retain professional truck drivers – from within Canada as well as outside our borders – we must first be able to identify and develop them. Training, therefore, is paramount. National Mandatory Entry Level Training, which added a new layer of professionalism and enhanced on-road safety for both truck drivers and the public, was a good start. But more needs to be done.

Many provinces have started to take a serious look at the relationship between training and the driver shortage / supply chain fragility. Kudos to Alberta, which in March 2022 announced it was investing $30 million over three years into efforts designed to support truck driver training.

CTA, meanwhile, would like to see similar programs replicated throughout Canada. The Alliance has submitted several recommendations to the federal government on helping the trucking industry meet the demands of the supply chain. Included in these recommendations:

  • The Government of Canada should approve Trucking HR Canada’s proposal to the Sectoral Workforce Solutions Program (SWSP). This proposal focuses on shorter term support to help address barriers for new entrants entering the trucking industry;
  • CTA would like to see widely available, and long-term new training funding support established for trucking, like forgivable grants to cover entry level training costs;
  • An institutionalized wage subsidy program to support the onboarding/training of new entrants into the industry. This is needed to support post-licensing on-the-job training;
  • CTA would like to see the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) application process streamlined, a recognized trusted employer program finalized, and a seamless path to permanent residency created for our sector;
  • Establish training tax credits for carriers to support investments in their training programs and onboarding new drivers;
  • Establish a national Driver Inc. enforcement campaign to ensure current drivers are not working in the underground economy and that their rights are protected;
  • Establishing a federal-provincial heavy truck rest stop infrastructure program to support our commercial drivers.

While COVID has surely played a disruptive role, the driver shortage is not a crisis of recent circumstances. Contrary to what some in the industry are prone to saying every time this topic makes news, the driver shortage is not a myth. We don’t have enough drivers – period. Despite what some believe, professional and safety conscious truck drivers aren’t going to immediately flood into our industry and stay for the next 30 years if we happen to find a magic money wand. The underlying challenges have always been much deeper than just dollars. But that’s why we’re here. To find those solutions – be it professional training, employer accreditation, safety and labour compliance, marketing, modernism etc. – and imbed them into the system.

If we don’t solve the driver shortage, a full economic recovery is not possible. The supply chain – and, within that, virtually every business in Canada – relies on truck drivers to deliver the products that keep all businesses open and Canadians safe and secure. It’s time to invest in truck drivers and return to a strong, stable Canadian economy.

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Stephen Laskowski is president of the Ontario Trucking Association and Canadian Trucking Alliance.

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  • Maybe we should look at why disabled people including veterans and truck drivers were living in homeless shelters like the one in blyth that was being heated with portable electric heaters and 20lb propane tanks with camp heaters
    We have a lot of truck drivers that come to Canada and only drive truck long enough to get their P R then go into another line of work
    Too many sick injured drivers have not got proper medical supplies or proper food in shelters in the past 2 years in ont
    We need to make a investment in bringing these drivers back to productivity before spending taxpayers money on training new drivers or imported drivers from low countries.

  • As a retired trucking industry executive, I can’t help but laugh at this article and the mind-set behind it. The CTA’s ongoing whining about the driver shortage coupled with their current industry image campaign are easy to interpret when you step back a little. The working conditions at many trucking companies suck. Trying to mask that with an image campaign, and then expecting the government to find more drivers for companies to exploit, is simply going to cause the situation to fester.
    I can imagine company executives saying, “Hey, let’s bring in people from other countries to exploit, the Canadians are on to us.”
    There are plenty of Canadian workers willing to take jobs that pay well, provide good working conditions, and offer quality-of-life. Trucking companies with admirable hiring, recruiting, and working conditions, win awards and don’t need the government to help them find drivers.
    This is a supply and demand issue. The trucking companies that have trouble getting drivers to work for them should not receive government help. They should instead look in the mirror to decide why they can’t get or keep drivers.
    If there is a driver shortage, eventually the companies that treat their drivers poorly will go out of business. Their work will be taken over by trucking companies that treat drivers fairly. Don’t give these bad actors government help to continue the cycle.
    And, don’t expect an image campaign to mask what drivers in the industry say about their working conditions.

    • Bernie – you make some valid points. In my opinion one of the reasons we’re in this mess is because, in the past, we’ve let the government get too involved. The good ole boys who kept this countries goods moving left BECAUSE OF GOVERNMENT. The other side of it is we’ve created a generation that’s never had it so good! Trucking has always been a tough job and todays generation isn’t hungry enough to do it – they don’t have to. Truck drivers have never had it so good – I disagree with your view that if your a good company you won’t have driver shortages. I know lots of good companies to work for – the best, and they all have driver shortages. The companies aren’t the problem, the generation we’ve raised up is the problem.

      Depending on government to get us out of a mess they created is not the answer. All the government needs to do is take their hands off…stop printing money, stop paying capable workers to sit on their couch watching TV…stop the erosion of our current financial system and let the chips fall where they may.

      Less government – more workers.

      • 90% of the young people are working today. Most have more formal education than 50 years ago
        Truck drivers wages in 1981 was the same / hr as public school Teachers pay or a fireman or a M N R conservation person. In 1981 a local drivers pay working 4 nights of 12 hours pay after income tax would buy a house I. Waterloo. 4 months pay would buy a new dodge diplomat or 30 liter of gasoline or diesel in 1 hour or 75 litrs of propane . A factory near Stratford is building a 32 unit building 24 of those 2 or 3 bedrooms units are for staff. They also pay from $25 to $$37.60/ hr based on the job and experience
        Many former truck drivers work for them because their partner has a job a d they can spend time with their own family

      • Gov and the industry has made truck drivers unable to find safe parking and poor pay compared to other jobs in ont. Too many truck drivers end up sick a d disabled without proper support. A shelter at blyth ont ran out of money to pay to keep running and for transferring those disabled or wheelchairs. No option has been provided for those that use a electric oxygen concentration machine putting these drivers at a very High risk to expire

  • Mark – What there is a shortage of, are drivers willing to work long days (14 hours as noted by James Menzies) for the same pay as others make in 8 hours.
    We are used to seeing some empty store shelves, but lack of drivers has never been identified as the reason for any empty shelf. There’s always some other company to take the load.
    Trucking companies generally do not offer a way for a person who doesn’t have a Class 1 licence to get trained, licensed, and start to work. They all want qualified and experienced drivers.
    Unless trucking companies produce and retain the drivers they seek, there will always be a “shortage”.

  • Stop advocating for big trucking companies. There is no professional driver shortage. It’s a myth. A way to mislead policy makers in this country. Unless you address the underlying issues. The problem will never be solved. Many drivers who are qualified – Canadain citizen leave the industry because of poor working conditions, not to mention overworked and under paid. I dare to say it, Truck drivers are modern day slave workers in Canada. Who in this industry are you talking to? Its evident you are not talking to driver like me. 22 years ago, when I got my license it was very difficult to go on the road without proper training. Today everyone is hiring and putting new drivers with language periors on the road without hands on training. If you think luring foreign drivers with false promises of making a good living from trucking, they too are leaving the industry as soon as they find out the working conditions. To solve the problem, drivers need better working conditions, such as mandatory overtime after 44 hrs of work. Truck drivers in this country works 60 to 70 hours a week on a flat hourly rate. The cost of living increased dramatically in the past few years. The average hourly rate for a truck driver is $19 – $21. Minimum wage in Ontario is $15 to $16. No wonder why there is a shortage. It’s a broken industry.

    • Well said one company that pays $28/ hr plus after 1yrc5% rsb match a good medical plan and overtime off the e logs doing local work has every truck full.

  • M.E.L.T. 120 HOURS OF TRAINING across Canada MAX.
    It’s a start but nowhere near enough. In 97 I did 8 weeks of training. About 50/50 between driving and class. That was followed by four weeks on the road with a coach. We all had an ego that said we had this, knew this and why were we wasting our time. The smart students figured out very quickly that we knew only enough to get into a pile of trouble and not a clue how to get out of it.
    After twenty five I love my vocation, I hope to learn something daily. I give back through mentoring and involvement in a number of committees. It’s fun to see the newer versions of me coming up through the ranks. But they are few and far between. Most of the drivers today are trained in a different background and are only driving to get a PR. I truly believe this to be a fact, ask these drivers. This is a short term solution, two year, to a long term problem. As long as companies don’t wish to change, we will continue to use a short term solution to a long term problem. We need to reinvent the wheel.